THE REVEREND STEPHEN HALE STEPPED into the creek. Ripples formed. Spread. Disappeared into the flow. Trudged onward humming about Christian soldiers. Pants wrapped around knees, dampness creeping up toward the rump. Bible pressed to his chest with his right hand while the left one stayed hidden under his coat. The preacher suffered from a paralysis or deformity, “A twisted horror claimed to turn sinners to salt.” This was what Thomas hoped to see. Intriguing like the stories of that Ramsey boy in the next county tied to a chinaberry tree.
Thomas shaded his eyes against the climbing sun blinding on the water. Wedged his finger between his neck and collar. Yanked. Swallowed. Wonder if choking and freezing one’s balls off produces the same shade of blue? I’m about to find out. His mother pestered him into wearing the suit and tie, though Johnny Williams wore everyday clothes. Dirty and torn. At least poverty is an excuse not to dress up.
Rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. Leaned on one leg and then the other. Knew the baking soda in his armpits corroded long ago. A few seconds more and I won’t need dunking to be soaked.
Practiced his going under breathing again as quietly as possible. Kept the arms still. Exhale through the nose. Inhale. Hold. Repeat. These exercises started after hearing his fate. Were done in his bedroom or in the woods alone so nobody, especially his mother, would know. And laugh hysterically.
The water looked like tea mixed with coffee. The normal calm flow looked flood force. The church really should wait until after the spring rains when the creek is clear and back to normal. Moccasins will be everywhere and that undertow will drag a body under in less than… A gulp of air went down instead of out. Bent him over strangling and coughing. His eyes squirted tears. Everyone, including his mother standing beside him, ignored his struggling. Please, God take me now! Why wait till I’m under? In moments that dragged like hours, the hacking slowed. Spluttered. Stopped. He straightened. Wiped his eyes. Smoothed his shirt. Slicked back his hair. Glanced around. Convinced the citizens of Canaan descended from stone throwers and cross builders. Wonder if a fatality like my drowning will disturb their nights? Probably not. Disaster is only a tragedy if it happens to you.
Sprinkling like Methodists do should suffice. It’s also safer. But Baptists believe Jesus has to make a splashy entrance into a soul. Guess that’s why He walks on water.
Full immersion was another custom of the church. Sanctification by dunking. Thomas was too old to sleep in a pew with his head across his mother’s lap and too young to sit up and snore. Today’s baptism began a weekend revival ending Sunday with the rededication of the church and dinner on the ground.
The Reverend Hale was Canaan’s first preacher. Like most places, they depended on the circuit. A couple of months ago, Thomas’s mother wrote somewhere complaining about not having a regular face behind the pulpit every Sunday. Folks were amazed when she announced, “The Lord has seen fit to call one of His disciples from winning souls on the Sodom and Gomorrah streets of New Orleans to Canaan to be among Christian souls.”
Johnny Williams is always telling these wicked and wonderful stories about his Uncle Chester who spent a weekend in a whorehouse on Bourbon Street during the War. Every night is a party with red velvet, black stockings, gold teeth, and sweaty bodies. One lady with enormous tits bigger than… Felt that familiar rising in his crotch. Immediately struck the fig leaf pose. Please, God don’t let this happen now! I’m supposed to be on hallowed ground! Bit his bottom lip. Stared forward.
The Reverend Hale, about three yards from the bank, turned toward the congregation. Stumbled, but didn’t fall. Flashed a smile. His teeth were crooked and stained, one on the bottom rotten. The creek barely touched the ends of the preacher’s coat. Held his bad hand behind him under water. Lifted up and stretched out his right arm, fingers clutching his Bible. “This is the day the Lord has given us! Let us rejoice and be glad…”
Thomas stopped listening. Wished the baptism were over. Wanted to bring some dry clothes to change into after the dunking, but his mother said no. Standing around soggy is probably another warped badge of honor. Certain that any moment the creek would freeze over, the temperature plunge below zero, and an arctic wind stronger than any hurricane would blow dumping at least ten feet of snow. Prepared though with the time-honored remedy of whiskey and honey. Clyde hides his bottle in a chest in the loft. Even if he figures out some of the whiskey is missing now and then he can’t complain to Mother because she made him promise never to bring another drop on the property. He does, as Mother told Mrs. Martin when I wasn’t supposed to be listening, ‘frequently overindulge’. Crossed his arms before his chest. Grinned. Also if I catch pneumonia I get to skip school. My recuperation could linger for weeks. Dodging Bertha Taylor’s suffocating crush and Johnny Williams’s bully surges are a constant struggle. Dropped his arms. Frowned. But what if I die? That will be terrible. Even though I achieve martyrdom and granted a heavenly throne. Wagged his head. Blinked. Sighed. Every choice has drawbacks.
“Today is an exciting and wonderful day,” the Reverend Hale exclaimed. “Four of our young people will receive the Lord. Those of us here watching will have the chance to renew our faith. Join hand-in-hand…”
Thomas sighed inside. This will take time. The Reverend Hale talked without periods like somebody jabbering in the Spirit. Wonder if he shatters glass? The fat lady at the carnival did that once and Mr. Martin examined the milk bottle first, but Johnny Williams swore it was a trick to get a fool’s money. Of course, the three-legged boy was a hoax. After Johnny hollered fire, he jumped up and the appendage fell off. Johnny says everything is a gimmick either to get inside somebody’s pants or to get something out. Glanced at the preacher wondering how much of the offering really went to widows and orphans. Tried to forget the urge to pee. I’ll cut loose in the water. No, I can’t. The pee will smell and cause another stain in my underwear. It’s embarrassing enough that Esther sees them while washing anyway. A thought popped up. Grinned. Wish she touched them with me in them. Immediately the rising started below. Again struck the fig leaf pose. Dammit-to-hell, why do I keep having these thoughts? Bit his bottom lip. Stared forward.
The preacher looked like a fence post walking. His suit hung loose from his shoulders. Almost matched the water. His right sleeve too short and there weren’t any buttons on his coat. The once white shirt frayed around the collar and cuff. The skinny tie, faded red and knotted wrong, swayed with the breeze. I’m sure there’s a naked scarecrow somewhere between here and New Orleans.
Greased back shoulder-length dead oak leaf hair ruffled around the preacher’s ears. A few strands flopped forward. He slicked them back, after tucking the Bible under his other arm, but they didn’t stay. Nickel-sized eyes, between blue and gray, squinted under scrawny brows. Nose swollen. Ears floppy, too much for a normal face. Jaw, cheekbones, and lips bulged. Stubble on his chin and above his lip looked at least a day old. Twig like fingers spread across the Bible, around one was a narrow band of tarnished gold. The Reverend Hale was ghostly pale, but the tips of his ears and slop of his nose glowed.
Thomas glanced around. The preacher’s wife stood close to the water, smiling foolishly at her husband. A wiry gash like a crescent moon cut across her left jaw. Maybe distortion is a common bond? Hands clasped beneath her sagging breasts, lips moving without sound. Wonder if she’s repeating or preaching? I’m sure she knows every word he says by heart. She’s got to be terminally bored. Beady eyes peered through a birdlike face. Sweat glistened on a squashed forehead. Nose humped on top. Snubbed at the end. The dingy hair formed a top-of-the head bun. She was tiny and short, no higher than his nose. Mrs. Hale looked like the kind of woman mothers tired to find for their sons. Clean and hard workers in public, but nags and slobs behind closed doors. Glanced back at the preacher for a moment. Almost feeling sorry then remembered she was his choice. Maybe she’s good in bed? Looked at her. Wagged his head. No, they’ve both got to be over forty, too old to care. She’s probably the oldest, a face like that takes time. Looks like there’s a bunch more wrinkles today.
The Hales arrived yesterday around dusk. A mule-drawn wagon with home furnishings spilling out pulled a sickly-looking calf behind. The parsonage, next to the church, was a dogtrot house like most in Canaan. Two rooms with a fireplace, connected by a center hole, but with a tin roof, glass windows, and board floor off the ground. Thomas thought plain, but comfortable. Those who lived on the dirt proclaimed it, “Wonderful.”
The congregation, eager to shake the couple’s hands, brought commodities for what Mrs. Martin called, “An old-fashioned pounding.” Thomas always thought it funny how folks remembered yesterdays better than they were.
His mother gave a sack of sugar. Something expensive others can’t spare. As usual everybody except Esther was there. Clyde said he was going, but something came up. Which probably had to do with a bottle. Didn’t really expect him to anyway. Says he gets anxious being around people. That’s something else we share. Still he deserves recognition; he built most of the house himself. Of course, I helped some. After smashing his thumb with a hammer a couple of times and nearly sawing off a finger, Thomas decided working with tools wasn’t his expertise. Besides, manual labor is so…dirty. Not that I’m lazy, I’m just more of a thinker. I’ll make my living with my brain. Make more money than those who struggle from sunup to sunset ever do.
“Welcome to Canaan,” his mother proclaimed. Spread her arms like introducing Heaven. “We’ve all been looking forward to this day. Come let me show you your new home.” Immediately the preacher jumped down smiling, but his wife stayed in her seat looking bored. That clumsy feeling of strangers forced into being friends without enough time to check each other out fell on them all.
I still feel that way after a lifetime in Canaan. As always Mother draws a line in the dirt and dares the congregation to cross. Their relationship teeters between fear and respect, expressed once again during last year’s Christmas pageant when I was Joseph and LizaLou Harper Mary. For years Josh and Bettye Taylor played the parts since they always had a new baby for Jesus. The dumb thing was a disaster. The stable nearly caved in when a cow tied to a post tried to run away. The jackass, the cow, a sheep or chicken was constantly dumping. LizaLou was her usual snob. Bertha, an angel that would never get off the ground, kept making moony eyes at me. Johnny Williams, erroneously cast as a wise man, left snot with his frankincense. No wonder I slipped into the barn and sipped from Clyde’s bottle after returning home.
During the “pounding” while listening to the chatter about salvation and Satan, “New Orleans is such a pretty place, but overrun with the degradation of men, no wonder God is letting it sink into the river,” Thomas strained to see the Reverend Hale’s bum hand. But the preacher ate with his plate in his lap. Even tied his shoelace with one hand. Tried doing that when he got home, but couldn’t. Guess God does work in mysterious ways.
A rumor circulating claimed that the deformity was the mark of the Devil. That witches hit the Reverend Hale with a cross during a Damascus conversion. Thomas knew that was silly. Wasn’t superstitious though sometimes threw salt over his shoulder just in case. Sometimes you need a lie. Still Mrs. Martin, who saw visions, quoted Scripture, spoke in three different tongues, wouldn’t drink whiskey even for a cold, said, “The Bible states that the Preacher or one of his parents must have sinned.” Thomas didn’t know. How can anyone get salvation then? We’ve all done something wrong.
Glanced at his mother staring out over the water. Left leg propped before her right, opposite hand on her hip. Her other hand, the gold band shining, twirled a pearl necklace. Slightly smiled. Breathed like a panting dog. His mother was husky. What women considered big-boned, men solid, and children fat. Straight gray hair hung to her shoulders. Wore wire spectacles, and, as usual, dressed in black. Her purse clung to her body. Dusting powder and sickly sweet cologne mingled with her musk. Scratched her lower stomach. Every now and then nodded at one of the preacher’s words or mouthed amen. Thomas stared back at the ground. Wagged his head. It’s downright spooky seeing her happy.
For weeks felt as though he was living in somebody else’s house. There was an eerie calm. His mother hadn’t whined, sulked, pouted, or wrung her hands. Hadn’t slapped anybody’s face. She’s even been civil toward Esther, almost kind, the other night complimenting her on supper and the peas tasted salty. Yesterday caught his mother singing In the Sweet By and By while arranging flowers for the Hales’ party. Yawned without opening his mouth. Does this mean her personality is fixing to change? Will she grow a mustache? Will she mellow? Anything will be better than before. Usually the mother is the villain for the daughter and the father the saint. For the son the father is the villain and the mother the saint. Since I don’t have a father Mother is both. It’s a strange situation.
Hannah Faye Wilkes Sutton was known as “the Widow”. Kept her in permanent mourning. After the death of her husband, she and her housekeeper came to live with her uncle in Canaan. (Thomas sometimes called Miss Edna “Nana” because he didn’t know his real grandmother.) Although this happened before being born, he knew the story. Like everybody else in Canaan. Every time his mother told it, which was often, she shook her head. Pressed her palms against her breast. Proclaimed, her whiny voice climbing multiple octaves, “Only by the grace of God did we survive.” Her journey makes Gulliver’s seem like a stroll.
“A wheel fell off. A mule died. My body bruised from every bump along the way. One week it did nothing, but rain. The heavens opened up and poured enough for an ark. Once we got lost and could’ve starved with nobody knowing, but the buzzards overhead.” Here she would shudder. Bow her head. Close her eyes. Her neck rolls shook more than Santa’s belly. “But I had to leave. I just couldn’t stay another minute after what happened. Terrible, horrible memories, I’m never going back. I’ll just express my grief by placing flowers in the church. Hopefully the Good Lord will forgive me.” Would then blow her nose. Wipe her eyes with the handkerchief always stuffed up her sleeve.
Thomas sighed inside. For a place cherishing mortality, Canaan isn’t exactly sure how Tom Sutton died. I’m not either and I’m his son. Strange how the speculation is enough; my father’s demise is Canaan’s favorite guessing game. I’ve heard everything from “It was an accident” to “He was defending her honor.” Guess nobody questions because of what happened to great-uncle Gerald before Mother arrived and them burying him outside the cemetery fence and all. The times I asked Mother about my father she gasped and ran into her bedroom sobbing so I stopped. I’ll probably never learn the truth. I’m doomed to spend my life a half orphan.
Once while snooping through his mother’s bedroom (Okay I know that’s wrong, but I was a kid, that’s what we do), Thomas found a yellowed newspaper clipping folded up tightly in a heart shaped box on her dressing table. T.E. “Tom” Sutton was stabbed and robbed returning home from a poker game about six months before he was born. But before finishing the article, jumped at a noise outside the door. Immediately slipped the clipping back, after refolding in the creases so it wouldn’t look opened, and ran into his bedroom. When he got the chance to look again the clipping was gone. Mother’s too ashamed to tell anybody the truth. She doesn’t want them to know my father was a gambler. Maybe that’s why there aren’t any pictures? Still she talked about the death often. According to his mother, his father was “Resting” or “Gone for a walk” and “Will be back any moment.”
“His things will be waiting as they were,” she would sigh, wringing her hands, using her pathetic voice. “I can’t find the strength to pack them away.” Which Thomas also thought was strange because his father never lived in this house or state. Mother had to touch them to move them here. Every day he saw his father’s pipe filled with tobacco in the parlor. Tried smoking it once, but choked. Amazing the harmful habits we come to enjoy.
Whenever there was a funeral in Canaan, more important socially than weddings because some folks didn’t and other did more than once, his mother offered her condolences by retelling how things were at her Tom’s. “Everybody said they’d never seen so many at a wake or so much food before, he was loved so.” His was the standard to achieve. The citizens of Canaan flocked around Thomas’s mother for advice: where the preacher stood, when the body was viewed, how long the family stayed sober. Her dress, gloves, hat, shawl, depending on the weather, and sniffling, though everybody knew it was for her Tom, were as crucial as the playing of Rock of Ages, Nearer My God to Thee, and the virtuous sermon. Always the person buried and the saint described was two different souls. The church’s reverse salvation ploy, someday business would capitalize big on mourning.
Shameless bragging contributed to Thomas’s suffering. Canaan knew the Widow Sutton’s and her son’s habits and preferences. They knew their furniture, their dishes, and the dainty needlework that could be traced back to “that Skirmish those Yankees started.” They knew the Thomas stories. They could tell him when he walked, talked, and was potty trained. Which is embarrassing as hell and taints the truth. I’ve never rescued a soul from drowning and the only fire stomped out was one started. Certainly there are good qualities—intelligence, courteous, noble—but Mother is pushing sainthood. I don’t want to be canonized. I want to be like the other boys, maybe even Johnny Williams. Sometimes I need to be alone. (He often slipped off to Red Hill Creek and threw rocks into the water.)
Sometimes it’s way too much. Nobody can live on a pedestal forever. We have to jump down and run around. We have to fall. Sighed. Shrugged. Old women adored him, telling each other he was “A fine polite boy with the sweetest manners.” The men agreed he would someday make the place proud. The young girls swooned and he was the children’s hero. His peers, except Johnny Williams, struggled between envy and hate. Johnny didn’t care. That’s the only attribute the boy has.
Whenever Johnny heard one of Thomas’s accomplishments the reaction was the same. The speaker ran back to him relating the details as though it was blasphemy while he tried not to laugh. It’s better than slapstick. Johnny always listened while smoking a cigarette leaning against something. Usually he yawned once or twice and pulled at his groin a couple of times. When the speaker finished, Johnny straightened, the cigarette smoked to a fingertip hold. Dropped the butt. Ground it under his boot. Blew snot out his nose. Said sweetly, his eyes like stones, “That moves my heart.” Then he would belch or fart.
“Why aren’t you more like Thomas?” other mothers constantly asked their sons. It he actually messed up, like killing one of LizaLou Harper’s kittens for a mink, sex or age was the cause. He was either “Going to grow out of it” or “It’s in the blood, boys will be boys.” Maybe someday I’ll get into real trouble for a stupid mistake, but it’ll probably be classified as a disease. (About the cat—last fall Mr. Martin planted stories about a mink after chickens. It was dark. Thomas had swiped a couple of swigs from Clyde’s bottle. At the time he wondered why a wild animal would let anybody that near with a club and if minks had stocking feet and purred.)
Thomas knew his mother’s view of him was greatly distorted, more so than most parents. Except for Johnny Williams’s who hope for single disaster instead of mass catastrophe. According to her, he was “The spitting image of his father only more handsome and smarter.” And like her other exaggerated praises that too made the rounds. Johnny Williams wolf-whistled and hollered out, “Pretty boy.” Last year on Valentine’s Day he gave him a small rodent’s heart.
Sometimes Thomas wondered if his mother birthed him as an excuse. What he did determined her moves. She even told strangers, “He’s my reason for breathing.” Which is silly. She had a life before me. Nobody should be that important to anybody. Like Bertha following me around it’s downright creepy. Father’s murder was probably his only way out.
Thomas stared into the mirror each morning and saw trouble. Teeth weren’t crooked or dingy. Face wasn’t covered with pimples. Eyes were blue. Nana said like the sky after a spring shower. Plus his hair was blond, nearly golden. Most of the other boys had brown or black. At least it’s not red like Randall Taylor’s and curly. He was already over five feet and weighed nearly a hundred pounds. Bertha Taylor, the fattest girl in school, Canaan, and probably the world, clasped her breast and called him “Apollo.” Also, unlike the other boys, he couldn’t tan. Johnny Williams once asked if I was an albino. I was surprised he knew the word. Most of his are four letters or compounds taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Sometimes Thomas’s voice cracked during a sentence and wiry sandy hairs were sprouting in the nether regions. His pecker was also growing. A half of thumb thicker and nearly a whole little finger longer since last summer. (Okay, maybe I fibbed a bit, but that’s a manly lie.) Sometimes, without doing anything, not even thinking about naked women or husband and wife things, it moved on its own. Slid across his upper thigh. Tried to poke out the fly or legs of his boxer underwear. Once during school, while sitting in a circle during history, something boring about one of the Greek wars, this happened. Johnny Williams, opposite him, smiled. Stuck his middle finger of one hand into his fist of the other and twirled. LizaLou Harper blushed and Bertha drooled. I begged God to open up the ground and swallow me whole.
Thinking about that, Thomas’s pecker started stretching again. O God no! Immediately he was back on the creek bank sweating, standing beside his mother and surrounded by the people of Canaan. Slapped both hands before his crotch, started thinking sad. The death of loved ones usually stops the action. Miss Edna, Esther, Clyde, Old Blue, Mother. Wagged his head back and forth. No, that last one will probably get me excited again. Sometimes folks attend funerals to make sure it is true.
Gradually, though the seconds dragged like hours, felt his pecker returning back into its home like a turtle into its shell. Good boy. Sighed. Looked around. Wondered if ordinary people had this problem. Maybe after baptism you only get horny after marriage on Saturday nights?
Old and young men, wives and widows, their faces like masks, not blinking or smiling, wrinkled and worn from too much sun, stared at the Reverend Hale who was crotch deep in water preaching about Nicodemus and Jesus. “How can a man be born when he is old?” Thomas knew the story. First Jesus baptized Nicodemus and later Nicodemus buried Jesus, so it was okay to ignore. Glanced around just moving his eyes. Wonder where Clyde is? I thought he was coming to watch me go under. He’s probably somewhere drowning in a bottle like I’m fixing to do in this creek.
Children waited. Most with dirty faces and leaking noses, pulling their mother’s hand. Eyes wondering. Saying nothing. The older ones looked bored. The citizens of Canaan were dressed in their Sunday best. Also washed out and worn through. None of the colors were bright. Hats and bonnets, if worn, were torn and floppy. Shoes or boots, if worn, had holes. There were coarse homespun. Cheap store bought. Hand-me-downs passed in and outside the home. Most patched at least twice. Some looked like they were never new. Thomas’s mother gave his old clothes to the Taylor’s boys who, after getting what good they could, passed them around the community. It’s strange seeing somebody else in something I once wore. Keel Johnston’s shirt came from his father through his older brother and will probably go to a cousin if the fabric holds out that long.
Thomas sighed. Gatherings like this made him weary. People who want to believe. Drown sorrow and resurrect hope. Common souls stuck in a world of dirt and make-believe. Their children grow into them. Pretending while smiling. Laughing while crying. Struggling to survive. Never earning much money. Searching for gold under rainbows. Seeking what will never be. They farm, log, or work in the turpentine still. Everybody knows each other and is someway kin. It’s really pathetic. Their only real happiness follows suffering and death for the hope of walking down streets of gold. Where hoes become harps and sweat haloes. Where work is fluffing clouds and polishing thrones. Sighed. Wagged his head. As usual Esther isn’t here. She’s always in the background, even before she was born. Canaan made her afraid…
A nudge, similar to those felt in church, poked Thomas’s upper right arm. Immediately slapped at the jab with his left palm. Rubbed the skin. Swallowed. Ouch! Thomas’s mother’s arms were as flabby as a rooster’s wattle, but her elbows were as sharp as his beak. Her weight reductions that never lasted a week always ended in gorging sprees. She glared at him. Slid her spectacles up the bridge of her nose. Crossed her arms. Nodded toward the creek. He straightened. Adjusted his tie. Stared forward. Okay, I’m looking. It’s like you can read my mind! Now leave me alone! And quit hitting me! I’m bruised enough for life!
The preacher looked like a shadow against the sparkling water. Somewhere a bird cried. Thomas bit the inside of his cheek. Shaded his eyes against the sun. For a moment he nearly forgot what was happening. Was almost comfortable though his suit itched, shirt and underwear clung like skin. Now his bladder ached to overflow. Glanced over at Johnny Williams who never stood beside his mother, but alone. Slouched. Sloppy. Digging his forefinger into his nose. Maybe one day he’ll find gold.
The Reverend Hale’s good arm stretched out before him like treading air. Shouted in his preaching voice, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.” Pressed his Bible against his chest. “Our four lost souls will now come forward. Thomas John Sutton will be first.”
Thomas stepped toward the creek. His bowels twisted tighter. Silently burped and farted. Soon my sins will disappear and life will be new. No more jerking off or lusting after Miss Watson. Looked past the preacher to the creek bank. The bushes rustled on the other side.
from In Memory Of