Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Once upon a time when the old heaven and the old earth were still more or less in working order, we somehow missed the signs they’d soon pass away. Were we ever blind. We buried our heads in the sand while the stars fell glittering around us. They dropped like heavy hints, but we didn’t have a clue. Why? Because we were creatures, I suppose, creatures of habit, with no imagination to picture the end, like moles busy tunneling towards a steel trap. That’s easy enough to see now that a dust of atoms are whirling around me as they begin to rough out a new creation.
Still and all, I kind of liked the good old earth, not just the happy times I enjoyed there but my bad days, too. I think a lot about my sins now in a fond sort of way. A good confession’s out of the question; I’d just be doing it for the fun of it. Still and all, it’d help to pass the time.
I admit I felt some hesitation that day I saw the Rev. Stanhope coming up the walk with a nice, thick stack of IOU’s in his hand and all of them, I knew, bearing my signature.
Lord knows, it was more than hesitation: my spirit was chilled to the bone. I felt like a kid who’s about to be reported to his parents for shoplifting. I wanted to hide in the closet. Me. And I’m a grown man pushing forty, though there are some who’d question my maturity since I still live with my mother. No one does who really knows me. I’m a responsible member of my community, a Lion and a Civitan. But there’s the curse of habit in that, a certain kind of snugness from being well situated and responsible, a neat economy of regular give and take, and it can make you tremble when a forgotten debt comes due.
I’m no tightwad, you understand. Those weren’t IOU’s for money the Rev. Stanhope was clinching. They were for service to the church. It’s a custom we’ve got at Beulah Methodist to put in the offering plate a slip of paper stating that we’re donating an hour or two of our time for the edification of the church — trimming the hedges around the parking lot or painting the parsonage, that sort of thing. How many times I had tossed in an IOU of service along with some folding money and felt so good and loving and justified. And, unlike Mama, who just about tithes her time, I’d never done a blessed bit of edification.
Soon enough, the Rev. was standing in our vestibule, fanning those IOU’s like a card shark. I was making small talk as fast as I could to delay his winning hand.
“So what’s the news? I haven’t heard anything about China lately, nothing since the TV quit working. You hear anything?”
“Not a word,” he said. “Nobody has.”
“So what does that add up to, you suppose?”
“Who knows? Maybe they went the same route as Japan. It’s possible.”
“And what was that — the story on Japan? I never got the final word on that one.”
He shrugged. “Just gone — that’s all. Not a trace. All the islands in the Pacific, too. Open seas from California all the way to China — assuming it’s still there.”
“My, my, my,” I said to fill up time while I thought up another subject. “Say, did you look at the stars last night? No more Betelgeuse. Orion’s still there, but Betelgeuse has burned out or something. And Cassiopeia’s lying down now. And she’s got this extra star at about her knee joint. Could be one of the Pleiades, I reckon. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit.”
I had done my best, but the Rev. Stanhope could do better. When he took the floor, it seemed to rise up into a podium for one of his sermons. He didn’t come down on me; that wasn’t his way. Instead, he extolled Mama to the stars, talking about all her hours of Christian service and how she’d surely built up a nice bank account in heaven where moths and dust do not corrupt. The more he pushed Mama up towards her reward, the more I was weighted down with guilt.
“So what can I do for the church?” I said, my face crushed out into a smile. “You name it, Reverend, and it’s done.”
“Well, I got a man in the car —”
I peered out through one of the narrow windows of the vestibule. “Not one of those guys who says he’s come back from the dead, is he?” I hoped not. I’m not one to judge a person by his race or creed, but, honestly, those people make my skin crawl.
“No,” the Rev. said. “Better than that — best of all. He’s a messiah. He needs a place to stay.”
I took another look down the walk. All I could make out was the dark outline of a head in the car window. The only other messiah I had ever seen in person had been a nice young man in our fellowship hall at church. He had come for a covered-dish supper. He’d said the prettiest blessing over the food I think I’ve ever heard.
“Why are there so many of them recently, you reckon?” I said. “I’ve heard of maybe ten of them in the last year and, if I got the story right, not one’s had anything new to say. I mean, what they say is gospel, all right, but we’ve heard that already long ago.”
“The bounty of the Lord,” the Rev. said in his holy voice. “Maybe He’s trying to underscore a few points. Not everyone got it right the first time. But this one’s really unique. You’ll see.” He opened the door.
“Now wait a minute, pastor. Our spare bedroom’s got a crack in the ceiling plaster. And it sure could use some new wallpaper. Maybe if you could put him up somewhere else for a few days, I could do it up right. He deserves the best, after all.”
He turned on me the kind of scowl that’s been known to make the offering plate overflow at Beulah Methodist more than once. He spanked that stack of IOU’s against his hand. It got to be a contest of which could last longer — that scowl or my look of innocence. Then Mama walked in.
“What’s going on here?” she said. “You’re not turning away the Reverend unhappy, are you? I remember when you were down with scarlet fever and he prayed over you all night long when you were at death’s door.”
The pastor on one side of me and Mama on the other — a poor, pale old woman showing huge hurt behind her bifocals where the perspiration welled up on her dumpling cheeks.
“All right,” I said. “He can have my bedroom. Come on, Reverend. I’ll help you get in his things.”
Mama laughed. “What kind of things are you expecting him to have? ‘Why take ye thought of raiment?’ she quoted. ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.’ ”
The Rev. laughed, too. As I went by him on my way out the door, I snatched the IOU’s out of his hand.
“Unique” is not the word to describe the messiah who came to stay with us. “Awesome” does better and “eerie” gets closer to home. Of course he looked normal enough: a pleasantly handsome young man in his late twenties, early thirties, clean shaven and clean cut, neat and respectable in his black suit, up to the standards of a Mormon missionary, say, but definitely not Jaycee material, not with his cheap haberdashery and uncoiffed hair. Like the other one I’d met, the one who’d blessed supper, he wore an invisible badge of authority, a kind of supernatural aura that made you feel calm and excited and simple as a child all at once in his presence. What I call eerie was his expression. His lips were always poised as if he were about to speak. But he never did, not a word. It got on my nerves.
Mother, though, couldn’t have been happier with him. She took him with her everywhere, to the grocery store even, where she showed him off to Mr. Krantz the butcher, who made her take an extra pound of ground chuck free of charge for her guest. Indeed, she was showing off a little and if that was a sin it was tiny and one that, after so many years of Christian duty fulfilled with such charity, she deserved to commit free of charge.
In the evenings beside him on the sofa, she told him about her good deeds and her failings as well, which in fact were really trivial, and went on to recount her life in detail all the way back to birth, including many a story I’d never heard. And when she was done with herself, she got out the family album, her most treasured possession after her Bible, to show the patient messiah all the generations that had preceded us. She played an unusual kind of game with him, that of giving him a quick moral history of each person pictured there and then waiting for some indication from him of his judgment on the individual. It went something like this: “That’s my great aunt Helen. Left everything she had to the poor. After the flood of ’06, she took in two little orphans off the street.” And after a while of searching the messiah’s face: “Just as I thought. And she deserves it, too, Lord love her.” Or: “Here’s Uncle Hector. Drank, cursed, gambled, and consorted with loose women.” And after another look: “Too bad. But I’m not saying it isn’t just, mind you.”
Throughout all this I never saw him move a muscle. His mouth was set just the same. Well, maybe he was using brain waves.
But neither was the fellow much of an eater. The most action I saw out of him at the dinner table was when he raised his head to let Mama tuck the napkin under his chin. I peeked once and he didn’t even close his eyes for the blessing she gave, thanking the Lord for his presence in our home. I pointed it out to her that he hadn’t so much as picked up his spoon.
“Oh, you’re just not watching,” she said. “I saw him nibbling some creamed corn a moment ago, out of the corner of my eye.”
“Well, how come his silver service’s still lying all clean beside his plate then?”
“Don’t badger our guest,” she answered me. And with a sly little smile his way: “I’m sure he’s just saving himself up for some of my strawberry shortcake.”
He wasn’t a bit. The whipped cream slumped down to the plate and one strawberry after another toppled and still he sat there, looking like he was about to say something.
This matter came up again in an awkward way one night at the parsonage. It was the Rev. Stanhope’s idea to put on a reception and buffet for our supernatural visitor and to have in attendance only the most faithful in the church. Mama, you can be sure, not my virtue, was my ticket in. I could guess what the Rev. was up to: first, he wanted to impress the messiah with the best sheep of his flock; and, second of all, he hoped that a small, intimate group might draw out the guest of honor and stir him to confide mysteries to us.
The reception part was really weird, like watching a drunk buttonhole a scarecrow. A dozen people crowding around our messiah, the men trying to press the flesh with him like he’s the governor and the women cooing over him like over a movie star. And him — he was standing there, stiff as a Sunday collar, sort of bowing now and then at no one in particular, always smiling sort of meekly, and if a hand came out to clasp his, he’d turn away to look at someone else. But the buffet is what really tore it.
It was Mama’s duty, since he was her house guest, to guide him through the casseroles and finger food. She had just managed to insert a plate securely in his hands when Miss Lily Scruggs butted in between them.
Miss Lily, you should know, is the lady Mama calls “my thorn in the flesh” — and she always adds, “Lord love her.” She’s a nay to Mama’s every yea concerning church business. It was after one of their set-tos that Mama once said, “If the Lord meant the kingdom of heaven only for charming people, I suppose He could get His quota at a Mississippi cotillion.”
Anyway, Miss Lily pushed in between them because she’d made some duck l’orange and nothing would do but for our messiah to have a bite. “I’m telling you, Lily, he’s got plain, down-home tastes,” Mama warns her, but that’s like trying to stop a charging bull by waving a red handkerchief. “Well, I’m sure he’s had his fill of the plain at your house,” she snaps back.
It was a laugh to see her trying to negotiate some duck into his mouth. Her cajoling was falling on deaf ears: “Come on now, just give it a taste. Just a sniff. Mmmm, doesn’t that smell dee-lish-us, huh?” For some reason she took that pose of his mouth to mean he was interested but a little hesitant. When she tried to cram some in, it popped back at her like a rock from a slingshot. The orange sauce made a shiny goatee on his chin. Mama had to wipe it off for him.
“I told you, Lily,” she said. “But you wouldn’t listen, would you?”
Miss Lily can hang on to anger longer than she can a savings bond. All through dinner she sulked and, when the eating gave over to conversation, she called out to Stanhope loud enough to get everyone’s attention.
“Reverend, do you suppose it would be all right for me to ask our guest of honor one teeny little question?”
The Rev. looked doubtful. “Well, I can’t see why not, within certain limitations.”
“Sir, sir,” she called after our messiah.
His eyes seems to fix on Mr. Macy, who was picking a bit of chicken croquette out of his dentures. “Sir.” Mama nudged him. His gaze floated over to the general area where Miss Lily was sitting.
“Sir, I wonder if I might ask a question?” She paused to allow for an objection, which never came. “Sir, I’m in charge of sending money to our missionary who’s in Burma. What I’m wondering is, since we haven’t heard a word from Burma in weeks, should I quit sending him money? What do you say?”
Nothing. He was staring now at the dead TV set in a corner of the room.
“Sir, we’d very much like to know. Is Burma still there or what? And what about China and Japan? Look, we need some definite answers and we need them now.”
Her anger was mixing with anxiety and beginning to give off the heat of hysteria. The Rev. was about to drop with a case of the jitters. The messiah had caught sight of her again and was following her hands as they bobbed up and down around her face.
“What’s going on?” she cried. “You can’t yank the world out from under us without explaining yourself. China I understand. A bunch of godless Communists. Okay. But the Japanese — they’ve been so good since the A-bomb. Now Burma! Dammit, our missionary was there with his wife and children — two innocent, little children!”
We were pulled together, the dozen or so of us, in the deep hush that followed. Together, eagerly, we watched the messiah. He almost smiled as he looked over each pair of squinting eyes, each mouth drooping open, hungry for a word. What he did was shrug. I guess it was a shrug. Maybe he was straightening the suit coat over his shoulders.
Then we heard Miss Lily sobbing as she ran out of the room.
“Poor old maid. She’s got no one to grieve on but herself. She counts out her appointed days like lumps of sugar from a bowl. Lord knows she’s so easy to love right now, after one of her little episodes. In a day or two she’ll be by to ask forgiveness. Then she’ll be back to her regular self.”
Mama was right. Fall and redemption, fall and redemption, and the gaps between filled up with a swelling pride — that was Miss Lily Scruggs. Today she was Genesis, tomorrow the Gospels, but give her a month and she’d be setting out from Eden all over again. Miss Lily, as regular as the moon. Two days later, she was on our doorstep, her head bowed.
“Won’t you come in and see him yourself,” I heard Mama to say. “He’s just in the parlor.”
“Heavens, no. I’d be too ashamed to face him now after the fool I made of myself.” I couldn’t see, but I’ll bet Miss Lily’s face was a contrite red.
“Well, if you’re sure, though it’d be no bother. He’s just having another look at our family album.”
“No, absolutely. I just wanted you to thank him for me. The burden he’s lifted from my heart, the bitterness gone. I feel relieved of the spirit. And I want you to give him this humble present from me if you will.”
“What’s this?” I heard a rattling. It sounded like a plastic bottle.
“Vitamins, high potency. I noticed he looked a little pasty the other night. I hope it’ll do for his body what he’s done for my soul.”
As subtle as a serpent’s breath, this was the start of Mama’s obsession. I’m not saying Miss Lily was an agent of the devil then, but somehow I imagine her cackling up her sleeve as she walked away, the evil witch pleased with herself for having palmed off a rotten apple on Snow White. That’s just nonsense, though. Sin is usually a secret matter between a soul and the Creator, sometimes so very secret that not even the sinner knows. And I surely don’t mean to imply that Mama was tempted into doing some evil. In confessing like this, I’d be doing well to get half of my own sins right. Mama was just being a mama after all. Maybe the Presbyterians got it right. Maybe it’s written down somewhere beforehand and that’s that.
“Does he look pasty to you?” Mama asked, shortly after the visit.
I studied him a while to be convincing. “No. He’s just got a fair complexion.”
“I don’t know. Lily says he’s pasty and I can see it now.”
“Come on, Mama. When did you ever listen to anything she had to say?”
“Pale as a ghost — look, how white his upper lip is. But I don’t put much stock in factory-made vitamin pills.”
“Don’t worry yourself about it. He’s in the same condition he was when we received him. They can’t sue us for damaged goods.”
“All the same, I think I’ll get some liver tomorrow. We all should eat more liver. It reddens the blood.”
There was a good reason why we didn’t have liver: I hate the stuff. Back in my childhood I used to overturn my milk glass right into the platter when the liver came my way. Accidentally, of course. I was glad to see our visitor shared my distaste. Maybe he felt like I did: my blood was red enough for general purposes.
Mama was deeply wounded. “He was always a picky eater, but now he’s completely off his food.” She sighed and smiled wistfully. “Well, I suppose it’s not so important what goes into a man’s mouth as getting something in it — anything. I wonder what he likes.”
The next night she commenced on a culinary tour around the world, beginning with beef Wellington. From there we hurried on to chicken crepes, knockwurst, and then goulash. Since the messiah never touched his food and Mama was too busy fretting over him to eat much, I had the whole world more or less to myself. Going around, I got rounder. Pretty soon I had to dig out some old clothes from my pre-diet days — things I’d relegated long ago to portly beggars down at the Salvation Army. By way of chow mein and teriyaki, I was returning to my childhood to become again Mama’s little ball of fat.
Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child, I consoled myself, he shall not enter therein. But I felt more like a loaded-down camel trying to thread himself through a needle. The truth is I was insulating myself from anxiety, putting thick padding between me and my trembling heart. Of nights I would lie awake on the bed in the guest room, staring up at the crack in the ceiling plaster. At last report received through the grapevine, the Pacific was lapping the coast of Czechoslovakia.
One night when I was awake with heartburn, I thought I heard footsteps in the hall. My anxiety made me pretty sure a thief had slipped in. All I found in the hall, though, was my own shadow. Distant lightning, flashing through a window, brought it suddenly to life. Whenever I see sheet lightning like that over the horizon, I think how substantial the creation looks but how it could go pop! just like that with the unsaying of a few words. I was lonely and I was thinking, too, about this lonely, anxious man keeping watch in a garden while his buddies, who’d sworn up and down their love for him, snoozed away his last hours. I decided to pay a late call on our visitor.
When I stepped into his room, I heard the bedsprings twang quietly under the batting. “Hello,” I whispered but got no answer. I could just make out a head above the dark headboard — someone sitting up. When lightning flushed the room, I saw it was Mama. The messiah was stretched out across her, his head and shoulders in her lap. One arm was dangling over the side of the bed like a dead man’s, but his eyes were wide open soaking up the light. Then the room went dark again and I was totally blind.
All nervous with explanations, my mother’s voice came jabbing at me.
“I’ve never done this before, really, never. Usually, I just sit at the foot of the bed and sing him a lullaby. That’s all. I’m not trying to play cozy with him, really. It’s just he won’t sleep, not a wink, never. I thought maybe this time if I held him . . . I thought maybe he’d. . . .”
I let her suffer awhile the silence from her loss of words. Then I repented of my meanness and tossed her a lifeline: “Sure, well, what would you expect? I mean, what’s he got to sleep off, you see? Doesn’t do a blame thing, not a jot of work the livelong day. See what I mean?”
“Why, bless me, if that’s not the honest truth,” she said gratefully. “Leave it to you to get to the heart of the matter, son. He’s not leading a regular life. Well, I’m putting him on notice here and now. Tomorrow it’s an honest day’s work or no food. He’s not going to lounge around here all day and then stuff himself to the gills. Work hard, eat hearty, sleep heavy — that’s the Lord’s plan for us all.”
I felt considerably better when I put myself back to bed. Then a small piece of ceiling plaster came loose and hit me smack on the forehead.
I found the two of them in the garden the next morning, busy among the collard greens. Kneeling in the golden red clay and him beside her, Mama was introducing the messiah to the business of weeding.
“No, like this,” she said and wrapped her hand around a clump of grass that had sneaked in. She unearthed it, shook off clots of clay, and stuffed it in his hand. After she’d done some more by herself, she pulled the clump away from him and threw it on the pile. “That’s better. You’re getting the hang of it now.”
“Anything you need from the market, Mama?”
She fetched a long list out of her apron pocket.
“What’s all this?” I said. “We having company tonight?”
“No, just us three. But you’d better believe our guest’s going to be starving when the sun goes down. Come on,” she said to him: “I’ll let you hold the hose nozzle while we do watering.”
Two chickens fried in parts, a roast beef, and a whole ham hock, sugar cured; cornbread and buttermilk biscuits both; two yellow vegetables and three greens; summer salad, tomato aspic, and potato chowder; of relishes: corn, pear, and piccalilli; of desserts: pecan and lemon chiffon pies, pound and angelfood cakes, rocky road and Neapolitan ice creams — as I looked at the bounty crowding the table, the tea cart, and sideboard, my heart beat faster and my stomach stretched.
“. . . Thy bounty, which we are about to receive. . . .”
“Amen!” I said.
Mama had put all the extra leaves in the table. I saw her head, small in the distance, just above the centerpiece, a bowl of cantaloupes. It looked like a honeydew perched on the top of them.
“What can I pass you from this end, son?”
“Sorry, Mama, I can’t hear you,” I called out in a pretend shout. “I’ll have to eat over to within earshot.”
“Mind your manners,” she said. “Before you have a bite, you ought to serve our guest.”
Grousing a little under my breath, I bibbed him up with the napkin and planted his knife and fork in his fists beside his plate.
“Well, what’s it going to be pardner? Want to start in at Monday and eat your way clear around to Sunday?”
“Behave,” Mama said. “Now cut him a nibble of this and that and see what he favors.”
It was no go just like before. I had finished the rest of the chicken leg and he was still staring at the little piece I held out to him on the fork. Despite my slurps and hums of praise as I smacked away, the only one getting hungrier was myself.
“Mama, do I have to keep this up? It’s not polite either to stand up while you’re eating, you know.”
She shooed me away with her apron. “Just go sit down and enjoy yourself,” she said. “If anything gets done around here, it’s calluses on my hands, I reckon.”
Now and then at the end of a row on my ear of corn, I watched her as she tried every trick in the book to get him to eat. Even that old baby number about the spoon being an airplane didn’t land any peas in his hangar. Grim with determination, she showed her teeth and made her words with hard, tight lips.
“Now listen here. You work around here, you eat. Get me? Work, eat, work, eat — no exceptions.” Then she did that trick you use when you’re trying to get the worm medicine down a puppy: with her forefinger and thumb, she pressed in on his jaw muscles.
His mouth sprang open like a bear trap. “Nyarng,” he said. And then of a sudden he inhaled — a sound that sort of resembled a jet engine starting up — and gulped down that whole centerpiece, bowl included. I choked on my corn.
“Heavens!” Mama said.
“Nyarng,” he said. All five vegetables and the ham hock as well went down him in a rush.
Mama was in a livid panic. “He’s choking! Oh, my, he’s choking!” She put her face to his open jaws. “Oh, I see what it is — something. If I can just reach it.”
“Don’t!” I cried. By the time I got to her, though, she was swallowed up to her shoulder. I held onto her for dear life and locked a foot around the leg of the table.
“Nyarng,” the messiah said.
It was like stepping off a cliff in the dark of night. It was like falling down an elevator shaft without a bottom. It was like sinking in an ocean of ink, down and down, but without getting one drop wet. It wasn’t really like anything else.
I clung to Mama. I noticed that the tighter I held on, the more slowly we fell. We were as snug as a square knot and I couldn’t tell her shivers from my own.
“We won’t let go,” I said.
“No, we won’t,” she gave me her word.
Above our heads we saw the dining room table falling fast, along with the chairs, the sideboard, and the tea cart. As strange as it was to see in total darkness, it was stranger still the way we moved aside to let them pass. Then came pieces of bric-a-brac from the parlor and sizable chunks of wall and floor as well.
“Look, Mama. Here comes the family album.”
“I’ve got to save it,” she said. And despite her promise, she let go of me to catch it. Somehow it buoyed her up so that I was rapidly falling away from her. It was beginning to dawn on me that whatever the law of gravity had been it wasn’t enforced anymore.
Slabs from the sidewalk fell down around me and shingles from a roof and the crumbling sections of a column — from the porch of the post office, I suppose. I saw the Rev. Stanhope far above me — a million miles away he seemed — and the dozen or so best members of the church were clustered around him, praying hard and falling slowly. They looked for all the world like a constellation, as fixed in their positions as the jewels of Orion’s belt.
Then I saw one star breaking free from the rest of them and a body began to plummet, picking up speed. It burned like a comet with a bluish flame, giving off a sparkling tail behind it. Down past Mama, down past me, as rapidly as the chunks of sidewalk it fell. I saw the face as it went blazing by. It was none other than Miss Lily Scruggs.
She was smiling with gleaming white teeth, the shadow of meanness gone from her face. And I heard her happy voice as she raced ahead towards the inevitable where we all were heading:
“This is my body, which Thou gave to me. Take and make of it the new dry land.
“This is my blood, which Thou poured into me. Take and make of it the waters of Thy new creation.”
Miss Lily Scruggs, freed from her cycle of pride and sorrow, showing us the way. Lord love her.