The good always die young. Ten-year-old Roy Brown hears this after his sixteen-year-old brother Billy, the Eagle’s star basketball player, is killed in a wreck before the annual rival game against the Tigers. Alone in the kitchen before dawn the morning of Billy’s funeral, Roy remembers that day.
Tag Archives: fiction
In a place nobody goes, outside the cemetery fence, is a blank slab with no “In Memory Of.” Legend says it’s a symbol of unrequited love. Thomas loves Esther, but she isn’t accepted in Canaan because of her bastard birth. After discovering a family secret, Thomas fears he’ll be treated the same.
IN MEMORY OF is another example of two teenagers struggling against an unforgiving society in rural Alabama 1933.
Closer to Mobile than Montgomery, wedged between woods and water, is a place nobody goes. A few homes, a church and cemetery scattered along a road leading somewhere else. Parents hope opportunity. They remember before it was paved. Now broken white and yellow lines on gray stretch up, down, around, away. Maps show a thread, Highway 59, emerging into a rope, Interstate 65. Travelers blurring through at night or without reading the church sign don’t know they’re seeing what’s left of a town. Those that do think they see a peaceful solitary country community, an actual Gone with the Wind Grandma Moses’ Hallmark card where everyday life like nostalgia takes time.
The air is clear, the water pure, longleaf pines scrape the sky. Birds tweet. Crickets chirp at night. Seasons change from green to dead without an in-between. Winters are pleasant and summers tolerable because of the Gulf Stream and air-conditioning. Tomorrow can happen whenever or yesterday years ago. The locals are friendly though they gossip about each other. But strangers passing through Canaan are usually lost. They don’t know how it is or was in a place where memories and dreams have died.
The turpentine still, which sent barrels overseas during World War II, rots in the woods burying hoops and nails found by metal detectors on Sunday afternoons. Miss Charlene’s post office and general store, the white box standing before the house on the curve, is closed. She always wore white gloves and had a Negro child nearby to handle money. The sawmill, which floated lumber to the Capitol, took Mr. Peck’s hand and cut a Negro man in half, burnt long ago leaving mountains of dust. The stores, the hotel-restaurant, the brothel on the river are gone. The town became another victim of progress that, like cancer, settled, spread, sucked.
Folks blame the railroad for skipping them or yellow fever running wild. Others claim they clear-cut the land and for several seasons the spring stood dry. Still others claim, “It was God’s Will, that’s how it’s written, nobody knows His mind.” Children packed up, running from or to something, chasing dollars. They return older, but still so-and-so’s grandson or granddaughter, to put their parents into the ground. If they settle for a while, or their children after earning a life, they live in an energy-effective brick modern with cedar trim and solar windows trying to capture what wasn’t. The two well-kept established homes, the Harper’s and the Williams’s, with Doric columns, wraparound porches, branching magnolias, overflowing gardens, are passed down family lines. Folks say the inhabitants are “Strange, but nice.” Weekend cottages and Negro’s shacks are poked in back, some still without electricity.
What’s left of the Widow Sutton’s place, decaying under sheets of rusting tin, is off the road about a half-mile north of the church. Once Bertha lived there, but after she died, over twenty years ago, the house remained empty. She never married and kept flowers on the blank grave. Some folks do that mourning love.
Trees and underbrush keep the lane dark even in sunlight. Katydids chirp and flies buzz around sweet and dead odors. Locals claim the house is haunted. Boys are accepted into secret clubs by running up and touching the front door at night, keeping their palms flat while counting to ten Mississippi. What is left of the picket fence, peeling and coated with moss, has orange day lilies and Seven Sisters roses spilling through broken or missing boards. The front gate is gone. Inside along dirt paths, leggy azaleas need cutting back. Camellias and crape myrtle are as high as trees. Briers and honeysuckle vines twist and choke limbs. Leaves, powdery white, have jagged worm bites. The middle porch step is sunken. The ceiling is sagging and flaking blue. Most of the railing is gone. The few screens left over the windows and doors are either ripped or rotten with holes.
Dust like snow fills the vacant parlor with the torn wallpaper, rain-stained ceiling, and termite-gnawed hardwood floor. Mold clings to the torn drapes and the few pieces of furniture left. The fireplace is boarded up so teenagers making out won’t start a fire and burn what’s falling in down. Folks say it’s bound to happen. The kitchen is in back once connected by a breezeway, the way homes were. Years ago the Widow’s uncle, Dr. Gerald Sutton, addicted to morphine performed abortions at night. Rumor says Ella Harper’s mother’s sister Lucy had one and didn’t stop bleeding. A husband shot Doctor Gerald for removing another man’s baby, rumored mulatto, from his wife. All three are buried outside the church cemetery on the other side of the fence. That’s the first tragedy of the house.
Behind the house is a path. Visible though the grass has grown back. Winds down, up, across, then down again for about 500 yards before reaching Red Hill Creek, a decent swimming hole, but better home for moccasins and teenage beer parties. The water wiggles for nearly a mile before reaching the Alabama River, the mouth is good fishing, and then empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Folks once hauled water from the artesian well, bubbling up from the ground beyond that dip. Hunters sometimes climb the bluff to shoot deer on the opposite creek bank below, but those spotlighting keep whittling the population down like loggers do trees. Years ago the church switched to the Williams’s swimming pool for baptizing after a dead coon was found floating in the dunking spot anchored by a rock. Red Hill Creek isn’t deep, just around a man’s ankles except in Audrey’s Hole, but after the spring rains the water can cover his head. Those two knives supposedly still rest on the creek’s bottom.
Up the hill under a bell steeple reaching into heaven is a white one-room church, Canaan Baptist with blue and yellow windowpanes, bright enough to be new. Organized over a hundred years ago when preachers were circuit riders, revivals lasted for weeks, and folks erupted with the Spirit. A few sometimes speak in tongues and shout “Amen!” or “Praise the Lord!” during a service, but not like long ago. The church is completely modern. The original chandelier wired for electricity, with central heat and air, red wall-to-wall carpeting, plastic ferns on the altar, an organ shouting hallelujah and moaning amen. The elderly congregation, thirty-one on roll, but less than ten in the pews, is generous with tithes and the less fortunate overseas. The preacher, the Reverend Leonard Stevens, with another church up the road in Damascus where his family lives, the Canaan parsonage caved in long ago, arrives and leaves in a shiny Cadillac. Services have dwindled to the first, third, and fifth Sundays at 9:30 in the morning.
Through a grove of dogwoods, their branches full of green-white crosses, is another congregation. Their stones are flat or rising, long or tall. There’s no gate just a rusty fence, huge log pillars standing guard enclosing an acre in wire. Camellias and azaleas mark plots. A cedar in the corner peels silver. The grass recently mowed smells like watermelon. Most of the graves, over a hundred, the slabs weathered gray or black, are decorated with fake flowers. One has wilted daisies in a mayonnaise jar. Another has plastic poinsettias waiting for Easter lilies. They will be colorless too when changed at Christmas. A couple of headstones are topped with kneeling lambs and one is shaped like a cross. Most are plain with names and dates, but a few have fancy verse like “Rest in Peace,” “An angel swept down carrying our Father home,” or “My Mother’s tears will be no more.” Families are together like for Christmas dinner. The Williams, the Taylors, and the Martins are united in the dirt. The Johnstons surround a granite arch and the Harpers are safe behind a spike fence. Birds constantly sing. A screech owl perches on a post at night. A pleasant eternal home, everybody says so, but like every cemetery everywhere there are stories behind each stone. Some are real or could have been and others made-up. One grave contains a man and his mistress, another a baby grossly deformed. A grave in back is busted. Children get on hands and knees trying to see bones.
Away from these graves are the others, scattered like leaves outside the fence. Nobody remembers exactly where so-and-so was buried; time erases what isn’t important. The blank slabs, dark and ugly, never decorated with flowers or cared by loved ones, are covered with weeds and grass. The earth is swallowing them in. There are three, five, maybe seven turned from the sun. Who knows if they were murderers, thieves, or adulterers? They are the ones that didn’t belong. Unlike the prodigal son, they weren’t welcomed back to an earthly home.
Farther up, under a pink dogwood overlooking the church and creek, is a blank grave. The grass has grown over the slab turned black. Some say the grave belongs to Thomas John Sutton. Others say the body under the stone isn’t human or a boy’s. Some say after the funeral the Widow Sutton went back to Georgia, suffered a nervous breakdown, and died. Others say she married (or maybe remarried?) and lived a ‘happy-ever-after’ life. Some say the Reverend Hale became a missionary then a lion’s meal. Others say he left his wife and became a monk. Some say after digging the grave, Clyde started drinking and didn’t stop until dead, but aren’t sure where he’s buried. Folks say anything because nobody really knows. What happened was years ago. Still they come on the whisper of a rumor, tramp around the woods and leave, pondering a grave with no a grave with no “In Memory Of.” (from IN MEMORY OF)
Appearances won’t get you into Heaven.
I don’t care if the streets of Heaven are gold or not as long as they’re clean and I don’t have to sweep them.
Most preachers tend to forget they’re dust like the rest of us.
Some folks shouldn’t ever leave home.
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Alone in the kitchen before dawn the morning of Billy’s funeral, Roy remembers that day.
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The lights went out.
“Welcome to Dearly Beloved’s Kumbaya Night,” a Charlton Heston like voice boomed from overhead. “A spectacular for the soul. Tonight we will inspire you through the arts.”
The audience clapped. Donnie’s hands prayer like before him smacking together, jumping up and down inside, caught up in anticipated rush. A term coined during one of our late night inebriated conversations. Rodney said a synonym was foreplay.
A flute tweeted. Sang like a single bird.
Donnie pressed his forefinger against his chin. Stared into the ceiling sparkling like a starry sky. Sounds like a piccolo or maybe a fife, I always get the two mixed-up. But again, it could be a tin whistle, more commonly referred to as a pennywhistle, which would make sense.
A single drum started beating.
Cocked his head. Definitely a conga or a tom-tom. Thought about asking Rodney, but decided not. The child doesn’t even like Madonna. I believe he’s tone-deaf.
Then, like a sudden hailstorm, dozens of different instruments joined the flute and drum vibrating the room. Donnie could hardly distinguish the symphony of sounds. Strings, woodwinds, percussions emerging together making joyous clatter. Harmony in chaos. Closed his eyes, the rhythms transporting him far away. Lost in a jungle. Emerged in a Tarzan movie. Is that the drum beating or my heart?
His eyes opened when the music quit. The fire in the pit flared up. The voice again boomed overhead. “Welcome the Circle of Pan to Kumbaya Night!”
War whoops exploded from around the room. Which Donnie would describe as, “Causing me to cling to the ceiling after jumping out of my skin.”
About twenty men shaking rattles, smeared in body paint, clad in grass skirts stormed the stage and began dancing frantically around the campfire. Clapping, cheering, stomping and wolf whistling momentarily drowned out choir of drumbeats. “Goddamn!” and “Lord have mercy!” Rodney and Donnie uttered respectively aloud.
Each body jerked, wiggled, quivered, gyrated, twirled and whirled in freestyle. Glorious chaos, Donnie would later describe.
Closed his eyes briefly, his body sinking fast, swaying to the beats like waves pounding the shore. Totally swept away as though drifting off to sleep. The music pierced his primal core, aching to burst free. Rowdy. Raucous. Rambunctious. Could barely catch his breath. Yet strangely soothing, calming, oddly pastoral. When was the last time I felt this happy, caught up in the moment, totally carefree? Swaying in a hammock maybe, as light as the proverbial leaf drifting on a breeze. Or as a child swinging, unbound by gravity, soaring ever higher.
Donnie clapped his hands in unison with others in the room. Suddenly bound in brotherhood beyond sexual orientation.
Each dancer looked like a centerfold. They danced alone, together as couples or groups. Mr. Pick Any Month, though under the glittery splotches appeared to be an autumn, twisted in solo convulsions. A golden-haired Adonis entwined in a rainbow wildly romped with an African warrior. Three flamboyant otters frolicked.
Time disappeared. Nothing mattered except now. Donnie later explained to Calista, “I felt as exuberant as any of the dancers, and probably twice as winded.”
More war whoops and the dancers were gone. Donnie arose clapping in unison with his Dearly Beloved brothers. “Bravo! Magnífico! Encore!”
Again the stage went black. Donnie could see a figure in black setting a stool before the fire pit while a voice boomed up above. “A campfire is not complete without a solitary voice singing to the stars.” A million pinpoints of light filled the ceiling.
“Lovely,” Donnie gasped in awe. Remembered the nights in the mountains with Rodney staring up from the hot tub. The stars as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach, each glittering more brilliantly than a diamond, causing me to feel enormously humble.
The unseen voice continued. “Dearly Beloved is proud to welcome Levi King to Kumbaya Night!”
A single spotlight shone on the stool. A figure approached carrying a guitar. “Hot damn!” was shouted from the back of the room.
Donnie swooned. Felt his nether parts tingling. Hot damn indeed. That stud puts the Marlboro man to shame.
“Good evening,” Levi said after the applause quit. “Thank you for letting me part of Kumbaya Night.” His right hand strummed the strings, while his left hand searched cords.
Donnie sipped his cocktail, his soul aflutter in a vain attempt of cooling down. The cowboy, no matter the sex or orientation, is an all-American fantasy. Masculinity incarnated. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is my second most favorite film, my mind filling in all of the unseen parts, which Rodney and I frequently role-play. A most useful technique picked up from my shrinks.
“Why must we,” Levi sang, “wait to see Heaven? Why can’t there be peace on Earth? Why can’t we love each other? Why must we die first?”
The voice matched the persona. As Donnie later described, “A tenor with a tender heart.”
“Why must we wait to see Heaven?” Levi crooned.
Donnie glanced at Rodney. Pressed his forefinger against his chin. A question worthy of deliberation, I’ll make a note of including it in one our late night inebriations.
“Why can’t there be peace of Earth?”
Granted, Donnie thought, Levi’s songwriting talents may fall way short of Cole Porter’s, but those jeans do make up for a multiple of sins. Giggled internally. Playful popped his chin. Silly boy! You’re becoming as ‘obsexed’ as Rodney. (A term used by a shrink in his portfolio describing sexual obsession that he found highly amusing.) Levi’s song is more spiritual than noteworthy, pondering the universal question why. Which, of course, there is no answer.
A dramatic pause as Levi started the second verse. “Heaven is more than a land faraway…”
Donnie picked up his cocktail, but didn’t sip. Or is there one? Humans have been kicking around the meaning of life chestnut forever. It’s the proverbial riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma cliché. The circle one runs around like a dog chasing its tail. Life is…
Stared into the false sky. Shrugged. Sipped his cocktail. I don’t know. Wonder if anybody does?
Levi also stared into the false sky. “It’s where love resides…”
Donnie sighed, glanced at Rodney. A most confusing, conflicting word shooting from spectacularly superb to viciously vile in a single beat.
“Everyone lives in harmony…”
“Nobody ever dies.”
Donnie gasped inside. His soul shivered and shattered. Death, the thing he hated most, was something he couldn’t escape. It was always there. I live in the shadow of.
“May we one day reach Heaven on Earth.” Levi repeated the round.
Donnie had a constantly changing concept of heavenly matters. In other words, he didn’t know and often wondered if anybody did. Of course somebody must. Every question has to have an answer. I just need to widen my search.
As a child, he pictured Heaven as a world beyond Peter Pan’s Neverland and God as Santa Claus’s holy brother. Who seemed to have an uncanny resemblance to George Burns.
Outgrowing that was a stretch of spiritual wasteland though not disbelief. I was overwhelmed with earthly matters. Went through the motions when necessary but not religiously. God’s death, like Mark Twain’s premature demise, seemed greatly exaggerated.
My religious life, like my personal life, is a dab unconventional. Okay, larger than a single dab, a lump of mass quantities. Some might say bordering on heresy. Of course my personal constitution didn’t just spring up overnight. Took years of refining and probably needs professional editing. But my thoughts are mine. They are a work in progress. Of course the results are never ending and everything is subject to change. So for better or worst, not sure of the balance, without much ado, because I do tend to be a bit dramatic, another incidence when one may quiver over the degree, may I present for your consideration, have always wanted to say that it sounds so theatrical, my theology—The Gospel according to Donnie. Hopefully, the views are worthy of the build-up though most aren’t. We’ve become a nation of hype, but again I wander from my subject.
God is love.
That’s it, my complete theology. Condensed into three words, problematic in using one abstraction to explain another. The only word I’m absolutely know the meaning of is ‘is’. I’ll explain.
My religious journey began in SummerSound’s First United Methodist Church. Mother said after marriage she flirted with upgrading to Presbyterian or even Episcopalian, but decided to stay with Sutton tradition. Us Southerners do tend to get sticky about blood. “Besides, Donnie Darling,” she added, flashing her famous smile, “Switching trespasser for debtor is hardly a step-up.”
Anyway, according to my baby book, I was christened at six months. Sprinkled with water the Reverend Crosby brought back from a Holy Land pilgrimage to the River Jordan. The Chapel did his Beautiful Eternal Memorial Portrait last fall after succumbing to a heart attack. At cocktail parties I tell everybody the water actually came from the Dead Sea predestinating my profession.
I joined the Church when I was ten. After hearing that the Holy Catholic Church mentioned in The Apostles’ Creed referred to the universal one and not the brown stone building on Sycamore Street, I raised my hand and asked, “Why are there so many churches then?”
Thus Reverend Crosby began a tedious explanation, which lasted the whole hour, while others in the class shot me ‘Go to hell’ glares.
Stopped. Cocked his head. Pressed his forefinger against his chin. Looking back that is oddly reminiscent of countless lectures from a host of male authoritarian figures beginning with Father that whistled through my ears. Wonder if that has meaning? Will be sure and mention that revelation to my shrink at our next meeting. Of course I’ll have to find a new one first. The last one, thank God I quickly forgot his name, bordered on creepy.
Levi finished his song. The applause brought Donnie back to where he was.
“Thank you. You are most kind. My next number is one I’m sure you will know.”
The spotlight flicked out for a moment. The room became churchlike. Levi began strumming his guitar. A rose colored light grew brighter. Levi lifted up his eyes and began singing. “Imagine there’s no Heaven…”
Donnie felt like he was being hugged. Wrapped his arms around him. Closed his eyes floating, the music taking over, singing along in his soul. It’s easy if you try…
When Donnie first heard the song years ago he hated it. Stopped listening after the first line. No Heaven? That’s absolutely absurd! There’s got to be a Heaven! I’ve heard so all of my life! Heaven is the reward for being good and hell is the punishment! Everybody knows that! Back then he immediately switched radio stations whenever the song came on. Plus the blasphemous interpretation of John Lennon’s remark about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus confused matters more. Oddly enough, it was Father who unintentionally turned my thinking around. Although my relationship with the old man has and will continue to be fertile fallow for many a shrink session, I will forever be indebted for that solitary memory. Which, sadly, is the only positive one I own. Hastily explained once to one of my therapists.
The incident occurred during the early spring of my senior year in high school. I’ve received a cherry red Mustang for Christmas. Totally flamboyant, which contributed to the constant teasing about my massive bulk and working at the Mortuary, but I didn’t care since my Mustang gave me freedom and I was leaving this God forsaken place for the University in August, and…
Oh, I’m sorry. There I go off wandering again. I’m fully aware that this is only an hour session, but I thought my minute details might help explain…
Yes, I understand. Sighed deeply. Suck in and out breath.
I was picking up Father from his work. His Lincoln Continental was in the garage and Mother was attending one of her meeting. Of course I knew that Father’s Continental was having a brake job and Mother was attending her Wednesday afternoon UDC meeting, but that shrink, who became an ex the moment I walked out of the door, will never know.
We were almost home when the song came over the radio. Usually when Father got into my Mustang with me, which was hardly ever, he immediately reached over and snapped off the radio, but for some reason didn’t that day. Oh, yeah, I remember why now. He was waiting when I drove up, jumped in and barked, “It’s been a hell of a day. Get me away from here as fast as you can.” Again, I didn’t tell that ex-shrink any of the details after saying the song came on.
I immediately reached over to switch stations, which had become a knee jerk reflex.
“Dammit Donnie, keep both hands on the wheel! Are you trying to kill me? When I’m riding with you concentrate on the road and leave the goddamn radio alone!”
“Yes, Sir,” I replied my eyes focusing on the road. Again, no descriptive detail to that ex-shrink, who made me feel shit small like my father.
“What are you trying to hide? What sort of goddamn trash don’t you want me to hear?”
“Nothing, Sir, it’s just a song. One I don’t…”
“I’ll judge for myself.” Father turned up the volume and I listened to John Lennon. Except for frequent humphs and grunts from Father, the world rejoiced in that marvelous voice.
After the last note, Father violently clicked off the radio. “No wonder the younger generation is going to hell listening to that kind of shit. Communist crap. Complete bullshit. All of those goddamn long-haired queers will sell out the true American way life for less than a dime.”
That’s when I realized ‘Imagine’ was the modern day equivalent of ambrosia from the gods.
The song ended. Donnie arose with his Dearly Beloved brothers. The applause, accented by wolf-whistles and hollers, roared. Levi stood and bowed. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
The spotlight went out again. Donnie and his brothers sat down. The voice overhead boomed. “We are all one united by the Spirit. Celebrate this brotherhood in song. Dearly Beloved proudly welcomes…”
A spotlight flashed right, “Faith…”
Another left, “Hope…”
Then in the middle, “Charity…”
Together burning bright, “ The Divine Sisters to Kumbaya Night!”
Applause and gospel music erupted at the same time.
As Donnie later described, “My eyes popped Little Orphan Annie size and my jaw slammed through the floor. Maybe the cocktails had gone spinning to my head or I was snatched up in the moment, but each of the three drag queens, though over half a century younger, seemed like an caricature of Mother.”
“What God is,” the Divine Sisters wailed, “I don’t know and you don’t either. No face, sex, color, except in each other.” Syllables sharper than their stilettos heels. Arms gasping and embracing air, bodies swinging, leaping, and swaying in harmony.
Donnie felt like all two hundred and fifty-four pounds of him had been slammed against the floor. Okay, may more. But my weight fluctuates especially during the holidays.
“What God is,” the Divine Sisters belted out, “I can’t say and you can’t either. One great Spirit overflowing us in love.”
Donnie, as previously noted, didn’t understand drag performances. Today’s equivalent of the blackface minstrel show. Drag queens are scary, another of my endless phobias. I’m sure there has to be a word, NASCAR phobia perhaps? No, that’s not right. Traditionally the prefix is Greek.
Pressed his forefinger against his chin. Why this trio doesn’t seem threatening at all. They’re absolutely charming, cherubs without wings. Each is a Gorgeous Living Portrait, chic without looking clownish or outlandish, beyond elegant. They’re not spewing sarcasm like an erupting volcano. They’re boisterous without being obnoxious, feisty without being brazen. They’re a rarity among your garden-type drag queens—completely non-bitchy.
The round began again. “What God is…”
Faith resembles Dolly, Hope a faux Miss M, and Charity is a cross between Tina and Donna. Identical in long slinky white sequined gowns, no larger than a size four, slit up one side. Tastefully accessorized.
Donnie stood with his brother went the song ended. “Thank you, thank you,” Charity said amidst the applause and wolf-whistles bowing and blowing kisses like her sisters. “We are so blessed.”
The lights dimmed and the crowd settled back into their seats. Again the ceiling sparkled with a million fake stars and the voice boomed overhead. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good work, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
Spotlights flashed on, music erupted, and the Divine Sisters burst into song. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…”
Donnie was immediately swept back to creating his church in his childhood bedroom, singing out loud, clapping along with the Divine Sisters and his Dearly Beloved brothers. “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…”
from DEARLY BELOVED, a 99 cents Kindle Countdown Deal until June 25, 2016