Friday, February 21, 2014
Whenever I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I think of small town life, of decaying towns and villages, of people struggling to get by, to make their world a better place, or at least deal with the fact that it’s not what it should be. There is a sense of nostalgia that permeates his work, and I feel as though I can empathize with the characters that inhabit the world he has created through music, a world in which I feel I would be at home. I grew up in a small town, and I now live in an even smaller town, one that has long since lost its glory. Once dubbed “Little Chicago,” my new hometown is nothing like what it once was, and what it once was—an industrial center of regard—was long gone before I moved across the river during my first marriage.
It is far from where I expected I would end up in life. When I was little, I dreamed of playing professional baseball. This may come as a surprise to some of you—especially those of you with whom I play softball—but in my youth, I was obsessed with baseball. I watched it, I played it; I collected baseball cards, and I could tell you who played for whom, what their stats were, and who was headed for the Hall of Fame; and I imagined that someday, I would play among the greats. I was seven. And I was devoted only in my mind. Every spring, it was as though I started over, my body having forgotten during winter’s stagnate period that it had done the previous summer. Eventually, the summer after eighth grade, I came to the realization that my passion, which admittedly was already dwindling, was far greater than my talent, so I hung up my cleats and retired my glove, my dreams of stardom fading as I locked my bat in the garage, relegating it to an untouched corner where it would remain until my father and I sold it some years later.
After that, I dreamed of being a writer. Of being an actor. Of being a musician. Regardless of what I was going to do and where I was going to live—New York or Los Angeles, Europe—I was going to be a star of something. A great actor. A beautiful musician. A writer whose ethereal works would resonate with millions of readers, offering them life-affirming truths spread across the pages of bestselling works.
Many of the characters in my stories are middle-aged men who are long past their prime, yet who still live in the past—wearing their letterman’s jackets to the hometown football game on Friday nights; standing along the fenced-in sides of the practice fields in August, watching the crop of new players who will carry on the legacy of which they are a sometimes forgotten part; regaling those around them with the stories of their adolescent greatness—in an attempt to recapture their glory days, days when they were truly alive, days when their greatness was known to those of their small town. I write about these men because I know them. I’ve seen them all my life, but it’s been only in recent years that I’ve started to wonder about them and their stories. What is it that makes so many of us focus on the past, that makes us look backward at what we’ve done in our lives?
For some, it’s the time spent in high school that lingers in their mind as the best days of their lives. And we tell teens that, that the best days of their lives are when they are young. Maybe for some it is college that lingers as the best days of their lives. Maybe it’s after graduation, the days of new careers, of first marriages, of parenthood. Of self-exploration and the exploration of the world around us. Travelling. Taking risks and accepting the consequences.
And I often think of “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen, one of my favorite songs. The opening verse, about the baseball-playing friend who keeps talking about his glory days, days long gone, echoes in my mind. And then we meet the friend from up the block, a divorcee with whom the narrator will have drinks on a Friday night after work. And perhaps the part of the song that affects me the most is the line “And I hope when I get old, I don’t sit around and think about it/but I probably will/Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture/a little of the glory of…” for I often wonder, when I look back at my life, what I’ll consider my glory days or if I’ll find, like the father from the missing verse of the song, that I didn’t have any.
We assess our lives on so many levels—personal and interpersonal connections; careers and hobbies; successes and failures; the impact we have on those around us—and this, at least for me, serves to muddy my accounting of my life and the events of it. When I’m old, I wonder what scale I’ll use to judge the events and successes of my life. For that matter, I wonder what scale you will use, for surely we’ll approach the analysis of our lives through reflection differently. Will we focus on career successes? On relationships with friends and family? On how well we pursued and used our passions and talents? Or will it merely be a combination of all of these, for maybe we’ll learn at the end that there was so single defining element to our lives, that everything that made us who we were was of equal importance. I’d contend that this is true, yet I still find myself evaluating myself and my life, here at the quarter-life mark, based on individual components, wondering what they all equal.
I think of relationships. You can count the number of people with whom I’ve slept on one hand (one of whom I was married to for a number of years) and it doesn’t take many more fingers to count the number of people with whom I’ve stopped just short of sex. So what do I know of sex and love and relationships? Admittedly little. Since my divorce, I’ve dated one person and been involved, in some fashion, with one other. My ex-wife lives with her new boyfriend and his son, and I find that most nights, on the nights I don’t have Holden, I’m home alone with my cat, reading, watching TV, or writing. But I found myself giving relationship advice to someone recently, someone whose situation mirrored mine from a couple years ago, and in her, I saw myself. In her struggle, I heard the words I had said to myself for a number of years but was too afraid to say aloud. So I gave her the advice I ignored when others gave me. And I had to laugh, for I thought of a line one of my characters has in Safety in Numbers: “You listened to me! My God, why the hell would you listen to me?”
And I’ll admit that there are days I’m angry about the direction my life has taken, for I’m nowhere near where I would have expected to be at this point in life, regardless of how undefined my ideas were when I was younger. When Amanda left for the first time, I found myself going through the five stages of the Kubler-Ross model, a model I had always associated with death, given that it was in light of Kubler-Ross’ death that I was made aware of her work. A friend reminded me that the model outlined the stages of grief, not just death, and I reflected on that as I found myself experiencing the range of emotions—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance—we go through when grieving. The second time she left, I jumped to Anger and then landed on Acceptance, bypassing all the rest. And yet I find myself going back to anger some days—not anger over the dissolution of the marriage, for we agree, as would anyone who truly knew us, that it was for the best, but at the fact that most days feel so much like starting over. A new career, an unfinished MA, looking for new love—all coming when I thought I had my life figured out. I was a married father who taught and wrote—that was the end of my story.
And yet it wasn’t. It was merely a chapter.
I started working at the grocery store when I was a senior in high school. As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t leave for the last time until I went to teacher high school in 2012. Seven years (off and on) I spent at the grocery store. But through it all, I knew there was a way out. I was going to college and I could count down the years, the months, the weeks until I would graduate and set off to make my mark on the world, to make the world a better place—and I suppose in my limited time as a teacher, I did that, even if just for a few students. I’ve had too many students come up to me later to hug me or thank me to believe any differently.
Yet I find myself now in a new career—management, a world of which I know little. I traded my socialistic, humanitarian passions for education for capitalistic drive. I haven’t considered myself a capitalist since I was in my late teens, and I’ve never thought of myself as a businessman or economist, so the talk of profits and losses is entirely new to me. Given my college education, I have the opportunity for advancement, and I’m sure it will come in due time, but unlike when I was working at the grocery store, there is no timetable for change. I’ve been bouncing from store to store to gain a better perspective of management, to learn how other managers do what we do, so that I can take from the best of them and craft my own management style. Yet I can’t help but wonder what my future holds—and when that future is coming.
My high school days were tame. I spent most of my free time playing music, reading, and writing. Watching films and old television shows. Weekends and evenings were spent at Katie’s Corner or The Bluegrass, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and talking about politics and Bob Dylan and how we were all going to make it out of our small town lives. Some left. Some left and came back. Some never ventured away. I may have dreamt of living in a big city, and some days I still fantasize about it, but the truth of the matter is that I like small town life. When I was in high school, I told someone that if Mayberry were real, I’d move there in a heartbeat, so familiar and in love with the fictional town was I from my days spent watching its citizens in black and white in my youth. And I find that I can relate to the plight of the characters of Springsteen and John Mellencamp songs, of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. I often feel like one of those characters, lost in some cosmic novel about the plight of the small town heroes, most of them unsung, chasing the fading American Dream.
And most days, I’m okay with that.
We talk about glory days, those best days of our lives when we were the best versions of ourselves, the days on which we reflect later in life. And I wonder what my glory days were, or even I even had them. But the more I think about it, the more I start to wonder if, just maybe, it’s not about having glory days, but, maybe instead, about finding the glory in each day.
Friday, February 7, 2014
Discarded parts to projects long forgotten; a broken dryer with no door; a lawnmower turned on its side, the blade dull, rusty, and loose, up on sawhorses as though left midway through repairs, just awaiting the return of someone to finish it, someone who isn’t coming; and canvas bags filled with baseball gear: scratched helmets and worn leather mitts, stained with oil, crammed in against metal bats with nicked paint and taped grips—this was the scene that Travis and Sarah saw as they pushed open the garage door and flipped on the overhead light that blinked to life slowly. Particles of dust danced in the light, and the overwhelming stench of old hit them as they crossed the threshold, out of the blazing sun and into the cool dimness of the garage. Travis cursed under his breath. Old dust, old dirt, old mold, old gasoline, all of it preserved in the shade of the small, old garage, cool and musty, and as far as Travis was concerned, all of it useless.
“At least it's cool in here,” Sarah said as she and her brother took in the clutter that had been relegated to the garage where, as children, they had watched their father tinker with projects never finished. He had tinkered away most of his free time when Sarah and Travis were younger, spending most of his free time out away from his family, isolating himself with cigarettes, beer, and a small radio that played the old jazz he had so loved and longed to imitate. But the tinkering had tapered off in recent years, the last ten years or so seeing their father too weak to devote time to fixing items that were not necessary. The last project had been the lawnmower, although Albert had not cut his own lawn for several years; still, he had insisted on working on the lawnmower when it started acting up—coughing, wheezing, stalling. He hadn’t finished it. And the remnants of that unfinished project epitomized so much of what the siblings saw as they looked around: started with the best of intentions, so much of life lies incomplete after it’s all over.
“Where to start,” Sarah muttered, looking at everything to map a course of action with her eyes, to mentally sort through what was there, what needed to be salvaged, sold, or thrown away. Her eyes locked on three large garbage bags, all lumpy and stuffed in the corner nearest the automatic door on the opposite end of the concrete floor, which was stained with splotches of oil, paint, and other indeterminate blots .
“The first thing we have to do is air this place out,” answered Travis. He pressed the button above the light switch, the blue one shaped like a small rectangular house. The automated door stayed lowered with not so much as a turn of the metallic gears overhead. He pushed it again; again, nothing. Pushed again; again, nothing. He pushed it again a final time before walking toward the heavy door that refused to budge, fighting the urge to smash the overhead box with the heaviest object he could find. It was another of his father’s unfinished projects, he supposed. “Does this thing not work?” he asked, rising on his toes to press the reset switch. Again he was met with nothing: no sounds, no beeps, no whistles, nothing to indicate anything worked. The door still didn’t lift as he mashed the button above the light switch again and again, grumbling curses under his breath. “There’s a handle on the outside, right?” he asked. It was the second of his questions to go unanswered. He turned to look at Sarah but saw that in the time he had fought with the door, she turned her attention to the outside of the garage, where she stood with her hands on her hips. “I was talking to you, you know,” Travis said as he approached.
“What?” she asked, finally looking at him. It was as though he’d drawn her from a dream world as she looked around, almost as if to orient herself. “What’d you want?” He’d yet to answer her when he gaze returned to the far corner of the fenced-in yard, an area wedged between the fencing and the garage. He knew immediately what she was looking at, for it was there they had buried Chipper when they were little, the first death either of them had experienced. Travis had been six, his sister four, when the dog had run out in front of a car while chasing a ball that had sailed over Albert’s head. Their father had tried to grab the dog as he ran past, yelling for it to stop, but it was no use, his calls coming too late. Sarah looked away but Travis just stared, stupefied, as the tires from the car squealed to a halt in the road, the body of their toy poodle pressed under a front tire. Their father had dug a shallow grave and placed the limp poodle in it, quickly covering the body with dirt to keep his children from staring too long at it.
“I was trying to get the garage door to open, and I asked if it worked. The answer is no, apparently. The damn thing won’t budge.” He noticed his sister was smiling now as she stared where once had stood a cross painted with yellow and pink flowers, the grave ornament they had made for Chipper, even leaving flowers for a while. “I’ll go around and see if I can get it to open from the outside.” He turned to make his way down the yard and around the garage, but stopped and watched her for a minute. “What are you staring at?”
She pointed at the corner. “There’s where Dad buried Chipper when we were little. Silly dog.”
“Yeah, I know,” he answered, “but I don’t imagine he’s going to come up and help us anytime soon.”
Sarah didn’t respond to the comment, but shot Travis a hard look. “Do you remember why Dad chose that spot to bury him?”
“Cause it was out of the way.”
She shook her head. “Cause that was where he tried to grow that little garden when we were little. They tried to grow…” She rubbed her temples slowly, as if trying to rejuvenate the flow of memories. “Pumpkins, tomatoes… tomatoes… What else did he grow besides pumpkins and tomatoes?” She bit her lips softly, driving her front teeth into the soft flesh and laughed, a habit she had when anxious, one that developed in childhood. It seemed that whatever answer she was looking for never came. “Anyway, everything failed miserably, so Dad went out and dug everything up, trashed it, and then when Chipper died, he put him there because the ground was already soft and tilled from the plants. It was less work that way. And he even joked that after he’d failed so miserably at the garden, it would be nice to put something that there that would do what it was supposed to.” When she finished her story and looked back for her brother’s reaction, he was gone.
Travis hadn’t the time for his sister’s nostalgic musings. His stay was nearly over and still they had much to do and clean and dispose of before his return up North for work, where his life would return to normal, back to the infrequency of visits home that, now with both their mother and father gone, would likely taper off to nonexistence, replaced by phone calls that served as the beginning and ending of any sort of familial relationship among the remaining elements of his family. Now one fewer, he thought, since his father’s passing, and most of the rest of them didn’t truly matter—aunts, uncles, and cousins he’d barely recognized at the funeral; in fact, several times Sarah had had to nudge him in the ribs and whisper peoples’ names as they approached, an effort to save them all form an embarrassing situation in a place it was needed least.
But for now he was standing at the back of his childhood garage trying to pry his too-fat fingers under the door with no handle—no luck. He straightened from his hunched position, age sending a burning crackle through his knees, and cursed his having now to find something with which to pry open the door. With his luck, he thought to himself, anything of his father’s that could serve as a wedge would be sharp and rife with tetanus, given the state of decay that permeated the old man’s belongings. He figured he’d likely get lockjaw and find his stay prolonged in the form of a lengthy hospital visit.
Sarah had returned to the inside of the garage by the time Travis entered, telling her to help him find a crowbar. She straightened from the bent position she had adopted while rifling through the garbage bags she had spotted earlier and began lifting items from the first bag: clothes, all them clothes— and from the lumpy shape of the other two bags, she suspected they were filled the same—baby clothes, toddler clothes, baseball and basketball jerseys; their father’s sport coats and mother’s sweaters; all of them crammed inside the bag without regard to organization, a likely sign that the other two bags were as haphazardly packed. There was nothing to tie the pieces together, no reason for their being there, other than that they were old, musty, and useless.
“Help me find a crowbar,” Travis said as he began looking through the tools littered across various benches and tables. “And why are you getting all that junk out? We’re supposed to be cleaning this place out, not contributing to the mess.”
“But look at this,” she said. “It’s so cute. I’ve seen pictures of you in it when you were a baby.” It was true. There were several pictures of him in the baseball onesie, as his old man had once dreamed of playing professional baseball, a dream that he had been determined to pass on to his son, and his mother had been an avid picture taker; not a photographer by any means, for her pictures lacked the focus, artistry, detail, or precision to be considered art; they were merely snapshots of life taken rapidly, as if the goal were to document as many of the fleeting seconds as she could: pictures of birthday parties and Christmas celebrations where people’s heads were cut out of the frame, Travis playing baseball, his sister playing soccer, baptisms, and formal dances.
“And,” she continued, “we decided to organize and sort this stuff first, then decide what to get rid of. We can’t just start pitching stuff right away. We may want to keep some of this stuff.”
“I doubt it,” Travis answered. “I’ve gotten along fine without all this for this long, so I think I’ll be fine another forty years.” He continued to rummage through the piles of discarded tools, all covered in rust or paint or varnish, stacked on the workbench, hung on the hooks from the pegboard on the wall nearest the door, or crammed and overflowing in a toolbox that had long ago lost its lid. Other tools had been stashed in makeshift cubbyholes and drawers, stacked atop several half-empty boxes of rusted screws, their contents spilled so that they rolled each time a drawer was open. There were screwdrivers, Philips and flatheads, multiple ones of varying lengths; there were hammers, some with wooden handles, some wrapped in tape, still others with rubber grips; there were levels; there were drills and bits and an array of heads, and nuts, and bolts; there was a circular saw, two handsaws, and a jigsaw—more tools than the old man could ever have needed, all accumulated through a lifetime of tinkering, each stained, in some way or another, by the work they’d been called upon to do, and far from the pristine condition in which they had been purchased. The larger tools had the old man’s initials—AF, for Albert Frances—burned into them. But there was no crowbar that Travis could see.
“All this crap but not the thing we need,” said Travis, kicking away some paint cans that were stacked under the worktable; and there it was, nearly hidden under but revealed by the clanging cans. He grumbled about their father’s disorganization as he scooped the rusted crowbar into his hands and made his way back into the steadily rising heat of the day, the Appalachian humidity making his clothes begin to cling to his skin.
The wedge of the crowbar, rusted and chipped, slid with much effort under the lip of the door, with Travis finagling and twisting and turning to the cool metal until the door lifted ever so slightly, just enough for him to squat and slide his fingers into the gap and lift, the door slowly rolling back out of view as he stood and pushed. He dropped the crowbar into the grass and wiped his hands on his shorts. As he walked back into the garage, he noticed Sarah’s attention had been turned to a collection of photographs she’d found in a shoebox. Travis reluctantly accepted her beckoning him over to look at them so they could revel in the memories spurred by the photos of them as toddlers playing in a sprinkler, or of them at Christmas holding up the presents they’d just opened, each of them with a smile spread across their face. He glanced over her shoulder at a couple of pictures, murmured some snide comment about his head being cut out of the frame, and quickly returned to work, dragging a small plastic swing set and slide out of the cobwebbed corner and out into the alleyway.
That is how they spent most of the day: Travis hurrying to arrange, organize and discard, Sarah reminiscing and holding objects affectionately, almost cradling them, each of them some small part of a puzzle that, when put together, formed the lives they had lived a lifetime ago.
“I’ve never understood yard sales,” Travis said as he loaded a refrigerator onto a dolly and wheeled it to the edge of the garage. “We spend years, entire lifetimes, accumulating things we think we find important, only to set it out one day on tables out in front of houses and let complete strangers rifle through the shit we claim to no longer need.”
The objects they had sorted through were beginning to take the form of three distinct piles: one for items they, mainly Sarah, would keep; another for items they would try to sale; and the final for items to be discarded, some of which were already stuffed into large black bags, several of which were already full and tied at the top—closed to further inspection unless ripped apart. Travis deposited the fridge in the pile of items they hoped would sale. Anything that failed to sale would be donated to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, should neither Sarah nor her brother decide at the last minute to keep it. Travis assured her he would not. It was that pile, the pile comprised of items they hoped to pawn off on others, that held the most items: tools, old records and cassette tapes, a VCR, an old phonograph player. Travis would have liked to see it be ever larger, but his sister insisted on keeping several old items, which no one would have probably purchased anyway—sports jerseys; decorations that were aged and tacky and other tchotchkes, remnants of bygone days, just tucked away as though waiting for an excuse to be brought forth, that reason seemingly having been found through decorating Sarah’s modest apartment.
The third pile was comprised largely of a combination of garbage and stuff they were convinced no one would ever want: old newspaper clippings of people long since dead, magazines that were moth-eaten and yellowing, included among them Parade and Time, and clothes that had been tattered and torn.
Travis heard the pickup truck rumbling down the alleyway before he saw it, the muffler coughing and spitting as the axels squeaked over the dips and holes in the gravel. Just hearing it coming, he could already envision what it would look like: an older model in need of much repair: a rusted out body, parts likely eaten through with holes; likely large spider-web cracks in the windshield; and a gun rack, likely full, in the back window. He stopped working and stood at the edge of the garage and watched the truck approach. His guess wasn’t far from wrong, though the body was in better shape than he had expected. There was more paint left than he would have guessed there would be, but spots were eaten through with rust, and the muffler groaned louder the closer they got. Two people rode in the front, both men reaching the backend of middle age. One was shirtless, covered in poorly drawn tattoos, while the other wore a sleeveless undershirt that appeared to be stained with grease. Another man rode in the back, his mesh hat turned backward, a flannel shirt tied around his waist, and sat amidst scraps of metal. He was younger than the other two, maybe about Travis’s age. The truck slowed as they approached where Travis stood, and Travis could feel their eyes upon him as they passed. He returned to work, moving more items from the garage to their proper pile as the truck continued down the alley, but it was only seconds before he heard them turn around and head back from the way they had come.
His back was turn when the first man spoke. “You-uns gettin shit a that stuff?” called the voice from the passenger seat.
Travis turned and faced the truck. “I’m sorry,” he called. “What?”
The man in the back of the truck motioned toward the items in the refrigerator pile, a pile that also included a small green fan with a metal blade and a rusted old toolbox. “That stuff there. Are ya’ll gettin shit of it?”
Travis was still trying to decipher what each of the men had said when Sarah came from within the darkened garage out into the sunlight and answered them. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, we are.” Looking at the items, wiping the sweat from her brow, and she quickly added, “Feel free to take it.”
“Wait, what?” Travis said, realizing what was being discussed between the group. “What do mean, take it?” he asked. “Come here.” He took Sarah by the arm and directed her back into the garage, into the darkest recesses where the sunlight wouldn’t reach and only the dim overhead bulb provided scant lighting. “You’re going to charge them for that, right?”
“Of course not.”
“What do you mean ‘of course not?’” Travis asked. He could feel an annoyance that had been present since they’d begun working edging higher and hotter within him. “We could sale that at the yard sale and get some money.”
“Really?” she challenged. “Come on, look at that stuff. No one is going to buy that. The fridge hasn’t worked in years, the fan is a safety hazard, and that tool box is so eaten through with rust that I’d feel guilty if I let anyone even think about buying it.”
“So what the hell are these guys going to do with it?”
“This is what they do: they drive around alleyways, looking for metal people are throwing out, pick it up, and take it to one of the places in town that buys scrap metal.”
“They get money for it?! And you want to give it to them?! For free!”
“They don’t get much. And if we keep it and it doesn’t sale, which I can’t imagine it will, we’ll be stuck having to truck it to one of these scrap metal places ourselves. I don’t have a truck, and I know you don’t. It’s just easier to let them take it.”
Neither said anything for a few moments, and Sarah took Travis’s silence for agreement. She made her way back to the truck that sat idle on the gravel, and as Travis watched the three men picked through the yard sale pile and loaded up bits of his childhood to be sold as scrap metal, which was at least get more use out of them that he had given them in years.
They sat at the kitchen table later that evening, just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, painting the skies a beautiful mélange of oranges and yellows. It was the time of evening that their father had always enjoyed most, when he would sit on the porch and smoke a pipe, read the evening paper, back when the paper still ran two editions through the week, and tell stories when his family would sit with him. When Travis had been little, he had longed for the end of the day to come, when he could crawl onto his father lap, wrapped in the warm scent of Irish cream tobacco, and listen to his father tell stories from his childhood, most of them true.
“My favorite,” Sarah said, “was the story he told of Walt Cunningham and the time they tried to steal candy from Walt’s grandpa’s shop. They crept around the store, trying to hide behind displays and poles whenever the grandfather would look in their direction, never thinking that the poles had large mirrors atop them. I think Daddy always said they were only seven or eight, and they would creep around trying to avoid being seen, and it was Dad who finally noticed the old man had wandered from his post. That was when they started to make their move to swipe as many suckers as they could, but just before they could move, they heard a voice behind them. ‘What you need if you’re going to steal candy,’ said the voice, ‘is a distraction.’ Both boys nearly jumped out of their skins before turning around to see Walt’s grandfather crouched down behind them, ready to go with them to swipe his own candy.”
Travis looked up from his wine and pizza. “Why that one?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah answered, finishing of her glass of wine. “I think it’s because by the time we knew him, he was old, even when he wasn’t. He was old and working, but life had worn him down so much. Sure he would play ball with us or Monopoly some nights, but there was always something that ate away at him.” She shrugged, her auburn hair cascading over her upraised shoulders. “Of course, we didn’t see it at the time. How could we? We were so young. But now that I’m older, I look back and see how much he did, how much he struggled and gave up.”
Travis chuckled. He had never thought of his father in that way. In fact, prior to the old man’s death, he hadn’t thought of him much in recent years. He would make it home for Christmas whenever he could, but New York to southern Ohio was a long drive for just a couple days, so the trips became less and less frequent. Sure, there were phone conversations, but they were limited, conducted almost in code, where each of the men would ask how the other was doing, and then listen to the lies they had cultivated over the years, each knowing some truth was being ignored, and yet ignoring that fact as they talked about the weather, work, a recent television program both had possibly seen, though Travis always thought his father was improvising his way through. Grasping at any bit of conversation that would keep his son on the phone for just a few moments longer when all Travis wanted to do was get back to whatever it was he had been doing before his father called.
“He was devastated when you left, you know,” said Sarah, offering the phrase Travis had expected to be leveled since he had driven down three days earlier. “He wanted so badly for you to follow in the family business. It crushed him when you moved north.”
Her brother scoffed. “The family business? Sorry if my aspirations in life went far beyond running some second-rate spaghetti house whose claim to fame is that John Kennedy ate there once in 1960.” Travis laughed as he took another bite of his pizza. “I see the new owners kept the pizza sauce the same. Still sweet as ever.”
“It was in the contract,” Sarah answered.
“Swear to God. Dad wouldn’t sell to anyone who wouldn’t agree, in writing, to keep all the recipes the same. And keep me on as manager.” She paused and smiled. “Always looking out for me.”
“The new owners okay to work for?”
“I’d hardly call them new anymore. They’ve owned Archie’s for nearly ten years now.”
Travis sat silent, letting that number sink in— Ten years. A decade. It didn’t seem possible that it had been that long since his father had sold the place; that made it nearly fifteen years since he had left home and moved to New York to pursue work as a writer, only to end up working at an ad agency, falling back on the college degree he had sworn never to use.
“That was the one thing Dad actually stuck with and finished,” Travis offered. “All that,” he said, motioning toward the garage, “now that’s another story. My God, I’ve never seen so much stuff to sort through, so many parts of a life just scattered around, collecting dust. Just waiting for someone to do something with them. But at least it’s ready to go.” He reached for another slice of Archie’s pizza—The Best in Town boasted the box—and refilled his wine glass. “You sure you can handle the yard sale by yourself?” he asked.
“Yes, Travis, I’ve managed a restaurant since I was seventeen. I’m fairly certain I can handle a yard sale.” There was an uncomfortable pause before she continued with a sigh. “Are you sure you can’t stay a few days longer? Aunty Betty was saying at the funeral how wonderful it was to see you. Even Reverend Billings said what a pleasure it was to have you back home.”
Travis shook his head. “I have to get back. I have work to do. Jessica couldn’t even come with me because we had so much work piling up. I’m sorry, I just can’t.”
“So how are things with Jessica?”
“Fine,” he responded and kept eating.
“Come one, what kind of answer is that? Whenever we talk, that’s all you say. Things are fine. I mean, you’ve been together, what, two years? Are you talking about marriage? Kids?”
“We’ve talked about it. I don’t know; we’ll see what happens. What about you? You’ve not mentioned a boyfriend since Mark left.”
“Between working, helping with Dad, and raising Brandon, the last thing I’ve thought about is a serious relationship.” Both knew that was the end of the conversation, as it was so often on the rare occasions they had spoken in recent years.
Travis checked his watch; it was nearly eight o’clock, too early to go to bed and yet too late and dark to work any further. He glanced around the kitchen: outdated calendars, cooking ware, and collectibles that lined the shelves above the cabinets met his view, and he dreaded the coming days when his return would find him and his sister cleaning out the house. “So the house is next, right?” Sarah nodded in response. “I can be back in a few weeks to work on it.”
“I’ll work on it while you’re gone.”
“We’re splitting everything, right? I mean, the money for what we sell, right?”
“After we pay of the rest of the medical bills, yeah. I don’t know how much there will be left. There wasn’t a will, necessarily. Dad tore up the only one after Mom died and never bothered to write a new one. He always talked about it though. Figured we’d just take what we wanted, sell the rest, and split the money.”
Travis pushed back from the table and stood up. “It’s a long drive back to the City in the morning. I’m going to turn in.” He hugged Sarah as he made his way past her, looping one arm around her shoulders in a half-hug that found her head awkwardly against his chest. He kissed the top of her head. “Get some sleep.”
She held his arm against her for a second before speaking. “He’d be glad you came.”
She felt him let go and heard him make his way through the hallway and up the stairs to the bedroom he had occupied so many years ago. She listened while staring at the red that stained her glass as the door to the room directly over the kitchen closed. It was then, for the first time since the funeral, she cried, pulling her feet up into the seat and hugging her legs against her chest, the tears cutting through the dirt and grime that had gathered on her cheeks.
Sarah was back at the house and sitting at the table eating a bowl of cereal when Travis came down the stairs, his suitcase in hand, and leaned against the doorframe. She glanced up from her coffee, but it wasn’t Travis who caught her attention but what he held in his hand. “I’m going to take this,” he said. The clarinet wasn’t in the best of shape, and the case had long since been lost, but it was the one remnant from a past life that Travis was willing to take back with him to the new life he had cultivated without his family, so far removed from childhood.
“You still play?” Sarah asked.
“Haven’t played in years,” her brother responded. “I sold mine when I first moved to New York. I needed the money, not that I would have probably used it anyway. Jessica isn’t exactly a jazz fan. She probably doesn’t even know who Artie Shaw was.”
“That was the one thing you and Dad had in common,” Sarah offered, as though he needed reminded that jazz—old jazz—had been the bond that had served as a common interest between father and son. They would spend hours listening to Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Bob Crosby when Travis had been a child, and on certain occasions Travis would sit in with his father’s band, The Bruschetta Boppers, named as such although they played a softer, earlier jazz in the style of Shaw and Goodman, when he was learning his instrument. Those nights had been magical, nights of which Travis had not thought in ages, and nights that would have likely stayed locked away in the recesses of his mind had he not stumbled upon his father’s old clarinet the night before.
“Are the Boppers still together?”
“Every Friday night. Charlie Goodman is still with them; so is Harry Stinson. All the other guys are new; some come and go. Members sort of revolve depending on who is doing what.”
Travis looked around the house. There was much work left to do, so much that needed to be cleaned and sorted, organized, to squared away in some manner that made sense and could be lived with. It hadn’t changed much in the years since he had been gone, though there seemed to be more stuff accumulated and tucked away in various nooks and crannies of the house than there had been, and Travis wondered how much of it was like that which they had found in the garage: purchased, collected, handled with the best of intentions only to be discarded when something newer or better came along, or when the job proved too difficult or too time-consuming, or when the old man had simply lost interest in whatever it was he had been working on at the time.
“It might be nice to see them play again.”
“You could stay.”
“No,” he answered. “I have to get back. There’s so much to do.”
“There’s always so much to do. Look at this place—Dad always tried to do so much, between the restaurant and handiwork, taking care of the family, that so many things were started and never finished, touched but never fully used.” And then she paused and asked the question that she had been holding in since Travis had first mentioned leaving the night before. “Why wasn’t home good enough? You left the first chance you got.”
Travis fiddled with the clarinet in his hand before answering. “I didn’t want to work in a spaghetti house all my life, playing jazz for local customers in a Friday night after the high school football game, a game that people who graduated twenty years before still talk about as though they were out on that field, still in the student section cheering like they were seventeen again. And some of them, for those two hours—well, some of them still are. And I had dreams of something so much better.” And as he answered, he wondered to what extent those dreams had come true, to what extent he was living the dream he had had when he set out on his own, one that had gnawed at him even before he got the chance to try it. “I didn’t want to leave a life like what’s outside, cluttered remnants of something bygone and unfinished, left for someone else to parse through, to try to make sense of after I died. I wanted a life of something so much more than puzzling housecleaning.”
She could tell by the way he shifted his weight that he was about to leave. “Be careful driving back.”
“I will. Give Brandon a hug for me, okay?”
She nodded before rising to hug him. They embraced, each knowing that his next trip would likely be his last, and that their already limited contact would be diminished even more with the passing of their father, the only true bond that had connected them in recent years. Travis kissed her on the forehead and turned to leave. He stopped at the doorway, taking one last look at what awaited him on his return trip in a few weeks.
“Maybe next time I come down I’ll try to catch the Boppers. It might be nice to see them after all these years. Do people still dance out on the floor?”
“Yep. Most of them are older folks, some of whom actually grew up with the music. Occasionally some of the younger customers will get into it. I think the high school kids do it because they think it’s cool to be nostalgic for a time they never knew. But it’s fun,” Sarah answered. “It’s a good time for a small town Friday night.”
Travis smiled. “You really like it here don’t you?”
“I love it. It’s peaceful, it’s quiet, the people are good and nice. Maybe it’s corny and hokey, but it’s home.” She shrugged. “It’s where I belong.”
“Well, if you ever decide to visit, Jessica and I have a couch in a small, cramped apartment, and we’d love to have you.”
“We’ll talk about next time you come home.”
“Okay. Take care.”
“You’ll be back in a couple weeks, right?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’ll call you when I figure out what my schedule is like. I should be able to make it in two or three weeks.” He kissed her on the forehead again before getting into his car. He waived as he drove away, and both wondered if he would actually be back, for housecleaning is grueling, exhausting work, as more and more remnants are swept away.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
We’d all gathered on the sandy bank, standing where the pebbles and grass gave way to soft, damp sand and mud. Leaves had been changing for over a month, many now strewn along the bank and floating up and down the wide creek. In the summer months, we’d all play in the water, sunup to sundown, swimming, wrestling. At its deepest, it’d come up to our chests, and that made it ideal for such things. The other purpose, of course, the one we’d watched all our lives but to this point avoided, was baptism, which was fine in the blazing hot months of summer, but summer had waned, and now we all stood watching Reverend Payton wading out into the water, and we couldn’t help but wonder how we’d gotten there and who’d have to go first. If we were honest, as sometimes we were, we’d have to say that we were all there for different reasons. Tommy’s parents had dragged him to the altar after they’d caught him smoking a cigarette out behind their barn, and he hadn’t put up much a fight on the way after they’d threatened to send him to live with his grandparents, who lived in an even smaller town than us. Little Mitchy Tyler—Bitchy Mitchy, we called him—had gone because we had. Mitchy was a couple years younger than the rest of us and scrawny, but we let him hang around us on occasion, even if was just for our amusement at times. We always made sure he got the ball the most during Smear the Queer, at least until he complained too much of getting hurt. And I had gone because Becky Reynolds had gone, and at that point in my life, I’d have done anything to be around her. Even if it meant kneeling at the altar in front of the whole congregation, leading them to believe whatever they wanted about what I did up there.
We’d all sat through the weeklong revival, each night seemingly dragging longer than the one before. We sat and paid attention as best we could as the Reverend Randall Sawyer railed against the evils of drinking, smoking, dancing, and sex—the youthful joys we’d just discovered in the first years of our adolescence. Some us were impressed by the fact that he hailed from New York City, a place we had all heard of but never been, except Benny Henderson, who had visited with some cousins a couple years before, and returned with lascivious tales; we doubted most of what he said, but we had to strategically place our hands to hide our piqued interests as he told us of hookers and peepshows, of girls walking around half-naked in the summer heat.
Ours was the fourth town Sawyer had preached through on this particular mission through our area, though he was no stranger to the south. He’d driven down south every summer for the past several years, his stints stretching into mid-autumn, making his way through the revival circuit, spreading God’s word through small towns, under large tents pitched in fields. Between the large, often multi-denominational ten revivals that would sweep the town into a charismatic fervor—one of the rare occasions in which all the small churches could put aside their denominational differences—he would hold revivals at whichever church would have him. There were always stories, of course, that preceded his arrival—rumors that he was known to sneak off with a flask of whiskey after sermons; rumors that he left a girlfriend in each town and that was why he was never invited back to any particular church for a second visit—we as teens had no idea whether this was true or not, but I knew this was the first time he’d been to our church. These rumors were part of the reason we didn’t mind going on the first night of meetings, part of the reason we didn’t struggle or protest as much as in years past as our parents loaded us into cars. But as the week wore on and no signs of promiscuity showed themselves concerning the stranger, we largely lost interest and had to rely of feigning interest as best we could to keep our parents off our backs; though my father had purported to have seen the reverend drinking in a darkened bar a couple towns over the weekend before the meetings started. I listened, hidden on the stairs, as he told momma about it. When I asked her about it the next day, she said not to blaspheme, and that we should pray for my father. In those years, Daddy was out of church, so momma said we didn’t have to listen to him, especially when he’d been drinking. Just the same, we’d sniff really hard like we were about to sneeze whenever we’d shake hands with the preacher each night, just to get a big whiff of his breath. Some of us claimed to smell whiskey wafting from him, but I never smelled anything on him. It was funny—those who swore the most that the reverend was breaking his own rules, those that said they’d smelled the proof coming off of him, were those who’d never drunk themselves, and didn’t even have dads at home who drank.
If the adults had heard the rumors we teens talked about so incessantly leading up to Sawyer’s arrival, they didn’t let on. It was though they’d outgrown the near-skepticism to which we were relegated, having adopted a full faith or full cynicism by the time they’d reached middle age. Those on whom cynicism had settled were not the type to frequent revival meetings, it seemed, but maybe if they had, they’d have shared our interest in wanting to catch the holy man slipping.
Sawyer had left town after the dinner after the morning’s service, so he wasn’t there to watch the jubilation of the adults rekindled by the spirit as they were re-baptized, an outward sign many of the most fervent of believers showed after each revival, an action for which no one had ever provided Biblical grounds and some had even preached against, meaning that most of us who’d answered the call under Sawyer’s oratory would be doing this for the first and only time on that cool October day. But Sawyer, of course, was on to the next town, and not there to watch our tepid steps toward the creek amidst the hallelujahs and amens of the adults around us.
We stood segregated by sex, casting furtive glances at the group to which we did not belong. Our summer clothes had been swapped for lettermen jackets and sweaters with the changing of the leaves, but on that day, in a slight return of Indian summer, an unusually warm day, we’d been tricked into imagining the water would match the temperature of the air around us, but we realized as we watched Reverend Peyton and the adults plunge into and under that sparkly flood that we were wrong. The adults shivered as they made their way out to the reverend, and as the reverend held them, one hand on the small of their back, their shirts pressed tight against wet skin, his other hand cupped against theirs as they covered their mouths and noses, anything to keep from swallowing creek water; and gasped as they rose anew from their symbolic graves, the cold having washed over them, taking their breaths with their sins. We watched as the adults rekindling their faith gave way to new converts. The first of us to go, after a succession of adults who’d managed to avoid getting salvation during their younger years, was Mitchy Tyler. We all whispered and snickered as he shuffled forward, going first, we knew, just to impress us all. He walked out into the water on scrawny, shaking legs. A ripple passed through his body as the reverend pronounced, “I baptize this my brother in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” his voice bold and profound and like a broken record, and then dunked him under the water. Bitchy Mitchy ran out onto dry land, rubbing the goose pimples that had sprouted on his arms. He was running and whooping like the Sprit had a hold of him, and the adults cheered his outward sign of conversion, but we all knew he was just a pussy who couldn’t handle the cold.
We stood watching the baptisms, each of us thinking about the sins we’d vowed to give up just days before—sex; the newly acquired taste for purloined alcohol, lifted from our fathers’ cabinets when they weren’t looking; our fathers’ dirty magazines hidden as we snuck off into the isolated nooks and crannies of our houses and out into the woods—we kept looking around town for women like the ones we saw in the pictures, but the closest we came was Lucinda May, who legend had it, had slept with almost every man in town; she was tall, buxom, and blond, with a toned stomach; she wore short cut-off denim shorts with the stray strands coming down to the top of her thigh; and it was rumored that what she could do to a man was well worth the two-hundred dollar price tag that supposedly came with her company. We came close a couple nights, mostly drunken nights, to pooling our meager resources to see if she was worth it, but we never got the nerve, wondering, though, if any of our fathers had. The thought of following in their footsteps in that regard was too uncomfortable to garner much attention.
We had vowed to give up much, too much, perhaps, we would conclude in years’ time, of what we’d just begun to enjoy. Looking around the people I’d known most of my life, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would follow the straight and narrow, however wide it was becoming in other parts of society; based on experience and watching those whose paths we now followed, I doubted today would last with many.
The numbers of us still dry were dwindling, and I knew I’d have to go soon. Those who’d already gone through it stood, warming in the afternoon sun, a welcome relief from the chilly creek water. Reverend Peyton had been out there for some time now, and we thought surely the old man’s legs and feet, everything from his bellybutton down, must be numb. We questioned among ourselves why he did it. In the coming years those of us who took our transformation seriously would grow to admire the old man, to have a deep and honest respect for him, but many of us, those whose going to the altar, those whose baptism on this October day would become nothing but a memory, would find the old man’s to be a sad existence. He didn’t drink or smoke. He didn’t dance, and he preached against the places we went, the music we listened to, and the films we saw when we drove to the next town over. He and his wife were quiet people who didn’t go out much. They could be seen sitting on their front porch listening to the local high school football and basketball games while we all drove and walked by to see them played in person. Whenever new restaurants opened in the next towns over, we all went as often as our meager wages, and our parents’ meager wages, would allow. But not the reverend and his wife. They could be found at the local diner a few evenings per week, but other than those few occasions, Mrs. Peyton cooked. Church on Wednesday, twice on Sunday. Board meetings and revivals. Visitation to the sick or shut-in. That was their life. We’d often wonder what in his life had led him to where he was.
Throughout the baptisms, the adults sang and testified, their voices raised. The men stood in their Sunday best, suit coats over overalls on many. Suits and ties—Sunday for some the only day they peeled off their work clothes caked in grime and sweat, and scraped away the grease and dirt that were ever-present throughout the week. They were good people. Hardworking people, many of whom had gotten onto us over the years for our youthful mischief.
Many of the new converts came up singing, their voices blending with the old. The longer we were there, the more people stopped along the road to watch. Some left their pickups and cars parked along the gravel skirt, some in the grass, and walked down the embankment to where we were. A few dropped their sins on the way and waded out to where the minister still stood, beckoning to all who were willing to come.
The group of us boys had dwindled to Tyler Fitch and me. Those who had gone into the water had come out and stood with their parents. Mark, Benny, Lewis—all with washed away sins. No more busting out streetlights on Saturday nights or throwing rocks through the darkened windows of the elementary school that closed a few years earlier and never reopened, the students sent to schools in surrounding towns. Most of the girls had gone into the creek, and we boys watched as the water washed over their young bodies. Our minds were filled with the images we’d vowed to abstain from, carnal thoughts of budding promiscuity, and we knew that no amount of dirty holy water would wash those away. I had to try to cross my legs where they met as I watched Becky Reynolds make her way to the minister. She slipped out of her sandals, leaving them in the grass, and padded barefoot into the creek, the water lapping at her feet, and slowly rising up her still-tan legs. Her dress clung to her thighs, illuminating everything that had burned in my teenaged mind, the water cresting at the small of her back.
I had never wanted to be a preacher, though my grandmother swore that I had the gift down deep just burning to get out, but I was jealous of the minister’s hands as they held Becky’s wet body, one hand on the small of her back, the other cupped around her nose and plump, pink lips. Her fingers held onto his upraised arm as he slowly lowered her, the water giving way, swelling around her, washing over her. She came up, rubbing the water out of her eyes, her blond hair dripping as she ran her fingers through it, fastening a ponytail with a black hair band that had adorned her wrist. She made her way out of the creek, smiling the smile of those for whom that day was a turning point, the first markings of a new chapter. I smiled at her as she passed me and made her way to her parents. She walked by, not even acknowledging my presence, and my smile slowly faded. Someday I’d get her attention and have the nerve to talk to her. I’d watched her from a distance for the two years she and her family had been in town, but I would guarantee she didn’t know I existed outside of being someone she saw around school. I had thought that maybe this would be the day I spoke, but my voice dried up in my throat as she passed; I found I couldn’t swallow, much less speak.
I felt my mother’s hands fall on my shoulders, her fingers squeezing me. She’d kept her distance until then, just watching to see if I’d go without some degree of goading. I hadn’t. Instead, I had watched everyone else follow through with their commitments. “Go on, sweetheart,” she said. “We’re all so proud of you.” Her voice was full of the heartfelt sweetness of a mother watching her only child affirming the most important decision of his short life, and all I could feel was the twinge of guilt gnawing at my stomach as I stood there feeling like an imposter. What had I been saved from? White lies? Not cleaning my room? Cheating on spelling tests? I was still a virgin who’d only seen a real naked woman once, and that was only when my neighbors had accidentally left their curtains open one summer night several years ago. So much of life’s sins and discoveries lay ahead of me, newly acquired tastes just waiting to be developed and explored.
I kicked off my shoes and waded out into the water. Tyler Fitch had gone before me and he was right—the water was awfully damned cold, a rush surging up my legs. I shivered, my legs stunned with the dull shock. My feet sank into the muddy bed, the slimy earth squishing between my toes. With each step, the water rising, a new part of my body grew cold, and by the time it reached my groin, shrinking what little manhood I had, I was ready to turn back, to fight my way back to the safety of the shore, back to where my friends and family stood singing, many with their arms uplifted, but I knew I’d face the disapproval of everyone watching if I did. Peyton’s outstretched hands—and maybe something deeper—drew me forward. As he held me, pulled me into him, his hands moving mine up to cover my nose and mouth, I felt something like belonging, a warmth of love spreading through me, enveloping me as the reverend tilted me back into the water, murkier than it had appeared from the shore, and the growing warmth was washed away by the cold that flowered over my submerged body. Everything sounded distant, distorted, the songs of praise jumbled and unrecognizable over the rumble of the quiet water.
I rose, shaking to dry myself, and pushed aside the hair that hung in my eyes. I looked around, expecting, just maybe, to perceive things differently, that everything would make sense, would be bathed in a heavenly glow. But nothing had changed.
The reverend patted me on the back, and I trudged toward the crowded shore, my legs heavy in the water and mud. My mother was standing by the water’s edge, her hands clasped together against her chest as if praying, pure joy beaming from her smiling face, and had a newcomer to the gathering not caught my eye, I would have broken down and cried, hot tears stinging my cheeks from the summersault my insides were doing, all bunched up and twisted.
The newcomer was Cecil Arthur Fitch, and he was making his way down the embankment toward all of us. Fitch staggered, still reeling and stinking from the night before. I spotted Tyler’s crimson cheeks, working his way toward the outskirts of the congregants. His mother, Missy, just hung her head while several of the other women consoled her. As I watched her, it was as though she were trying to squeeze tight into herself, as if she could disappear from our midst before it was too late.
The reverend was still standing in the water; his arms were lifted over his head, and he was calling, “Will you come, folks? Will any others come and plunge beneath that crimson flood?” His voice was pleading, his eyes searching the crowd, most of whom, in truth, were saved and had been for longer than I had been alive. But still, as he did every Sunday behind the pulpit, he stood and made the same pleas. “You who are backslidden, you who once walked in the light but have allowed the darkness of the world to lure you back into Satan’s grasp, come, come and let Jesus wipe away the filth of sin from your soul. Your precious, precious soul. It’s not too late, oh sinner. You can still come and be made new.”
Those in the crowd were looking around at each other, wondering who, if anyone, would go next. Many were praying, their arms up over their bowed heads, eyes closed tight, soft utterances coming from their barely moving lips. My mother put her arms around me and pulled me against her. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she told me that she was proud of me and that she loved me. I could only hang my head; she thought I was praying.
“I’m coming. I’ll come,” called a voice from behind us. I could see Tyler’s cheeks burning brighter, the tips of his ears turning pink, as his father pushed his way through the crowd. I felt sorry for Tyler, imagining the humiliation he must be feeling, but I was thankful for the distraction, anything to displace my guilt. His old man was making his way through the crowd, loosening his stained tie, filthy from whatever he’d dripped on it the day before. Cecil—Mr. Fitch we were told to call him—tore at the top buttons on his yellowed shirt, fumbling as he tried to slip it off. Some of the younger children snickered as they watched the embarrassing scene; parents covered their innocent eyes out of fear of what the man would do next. Mostly the men were laughing, the women looking away in pious indignation. I had lost sight of Mrs. Fitch, but deep down I was glad for the spectacle: it distracted me from the tumultuous feelings still lingering in my stomach. I watched Tyler’s face burning as he pushed backward through the crowd.
I never understood why we had to call Cecil Fitch Mister Fitch. That title was often assigned only to those of good repute, those whom our parents saw as equals and productive members of society, those pillars of both church and community without whom our town, it was believed, would fall apart and be taken over by the likes of Cecil Fitch. He was often the subject of gossip behind closed doors and over dinner tables, with mainly the women showing some compassion as they talked about how sorry they felt for Tyler and Missy and how important it was to extend to them the Christian compassion that dictated so many of their thoughts and deeds. There was always talk of a special offering for the Fitches, who were always in need of extra money given the state of Cecil’s work habits: he worked for himself, claiming to be a master carpenter and homebuilder, though his work was often shoddy at best when he would infrequently be hired on jobs. Though Tyler would never admit it, we all knew that they were dependent on the state for much of what they had, which wasn’t much. The special offerings were often smaller than one would expect, with many of the parishioners of town claiming they couldn’t justify their money going to a drunk like Cecil Fitch. When reminded that the money was for Missy and the boy, who couldn’t be faulted for the old man’s actions, the withholders would claim that there was no way to ensure that Cecil wouldn’t get his hands on it and drink it all away. But that was the good Christian charity of the people I knew: God helped those who helped themselves, and Cecil Fitch didn’t help himself that wasn’t made of sour mash. God wouldn’t give him money—the church folk were just following in His footsteps.
“Do you, sinner, repent of your worldly sins and command that the devil loosen his grip on your soul?” Reverend Payton asked, cradling the larger man in his arms. Fitch had stripped to his undershirt and boxers, both covered in sweat and other stains that we couldn’t decently consider, his feet still glad in socks as he trudged into the creek. He’d plunged into that cold water without a second thought—no hesitation at the shock that awaited him—and now his swollen eyes were looking up at the sky as though Christ himself were coming down to land as a dove on his forehead. I’d quit looking for Tyler or his mother. God and everyone knew he’d hear about it at school the next day. His father’s baptism, which the old man would likely not remember, would be the talk of the town—and that include the school. Anything the old man said before or after being submerged would be used against Tyler into the foreseeable future. And the adults wouldn’t be much better, but at least they’d have the tact not to talk about it in front of Tyler—not much, anyway. But for now, all eyes that weren’t looking away in embarrassment were locked on the preacher and the drunk.
“Oh, yes, yes. I repent! I repent!” bellowed Fitch. “Save me, sweet Jesus!”
“Then I baptize you, Cecil Arthur Fitch, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
With that, the reverend dipped Cecil under the water and pulled him back up. Fitch came back up gasping and sputtering, coughing out mouthfuls of creek water. The coldness of the water had finally been felt, all the way down his throat and into his chest. The reverend patted him on the back, asking if he was ok. It was probably the first time Cecil had had anything to drink that didn’t burn since Thursday night. The reverend led him out of the water as the gathered crowd clapped and amened. Payton was calling it a day—after baptizing Cecil Fitch, any other redemptions would just be a gaudy display of one-upmanship. His being saved had made the day—many of those who’d refused to send money they Fitches’ way were the same who fervently prayed for the man’s salvation, asking God to send whatever He needed to to get Cecil’s attention: ailments, jail time. Whatever He deemed necessary to use against the drunkard.
Peyton and Cecil were met at the shore as hands were shaken and arms thrown around the new Cecil who only moments ago had been deemed little more than a drunkard. Missy and Tyler begrudgingly made their way forward and were among the first to greet him, both with grins painfully spread across their faces. Mrs. Fitch wiped at her red cheeks and puffy eyes as older women hugged her, many sharing in her assumed tears of joy. Now that Cecil was right with the Lord, everything would get better: he’d secure a job with good wages, make life better for his family, save. Maybe even work his way up to serving on church boards and committees before too long. Who knew what God had in store for Cecil now! Everyone was sure whatever it was it would be big. Life was going to turn around for the Fitches and the hankering for firewater that had haunted Cecil for years was now under God’s thumb, and there it would stay. But even those of us who thought it knew it was a dream. Next weekend, Cecil Fitch would be staggering innocently through town, singing off key and at the top of his longs, moaning out some lovesick tune, until he headed home for the night to pass out. If he made it home and didn’t sleep at the train station at the other end of town, where he would often sit and ramble about waiting on his train to come in, a train that would carry him away—amusing ramblings that always made those passing through town who happened to encounter him leery, but amusing enough to those of us who knew he wasn’t crazy. They’d watch from sideways glances as train after train left and Cecil was never on them.
We made our way back to the church for the dinner that waiting on us. Long tables of fried chicken and potato salad, of baked beans with molasses, that had been prepared by the Women’s Auxiliary were now waiting for us, had been waiting for us since about midway through the baptism, a few select women leaving the creek to heat up the food. Now we made our way back in a happy parade, all singing at welcoming the new followers into our midst. Tyler was walking with his parents, and when we made eye contact, he smiled. I diverted my gaze to stare at my feet as I walked. Something about watching his father baptized made me feel guilty, likely because it allowed me to think of something other than my own baptism, about which I was still uncertain. Everyone was jovial, enraptured with the Spirit and each other. Many of us were already thinking, though, of our next sins, envisioning what we’d need to repent of by the time the next revival rolled around in the spring. I was lost in this train of thought when I felt something warm brush against my hand. I looked up in time to see Becky passing me, hurrying to catch up to her mother and father. “Sorry,” she said. She was fixing her flaxen hair and had incidentally brushed her hand against mine in the process. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t care. An electric surge coursed through my body and my limbs turned numb as I watched her walk away.
“It’s ok,” I muttered, barely audible even to myself. My mouth was dry as I tried to think of something else to call after her, something—anything—to get her attention, to tell her that I loved her. I didn’t know what new sins I’d commit between then and the revival in the spring, but as I watched Becky Reynolds walk away, her still bare feet sliding through the grass, her tan legs extending from below the short, cream-colored skirt that still clung to her wet skin, I knew where I wanted my sinning to start.