James Ryer: Fiction: Dec 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and have lived in the South when it was segregated, have seen the changes forged through the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have witnessed the flare ups ignited by racial inequities and injustices in the ensuing years, have taken to heart James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” (1963) and Jesmyn Ward’s “The Fire This Time” (2017), and hope to live long enough to realize a true reconciliation on the matter of race throughout the country. It’s time, past time truth be told, for meaningful, unifying action.

On the One and the Three

With a Nod to Jason Isbell 

Sinner-man had been a lifelong alcoholic.  He’d tried AA various times after first washing out of rehab at 17 years old.  After years of disappointment, his family had given him up as a lost cause.  The friends he met on the street weren’t real friends as much as people with whom he got high and then fought with over the last swig.  Twenty-four hours earlier, still predominantly drunk and shaking from a near terminal seventeen-day binge, appeared a whiskey-fueled hallucination where an equally sodden angel looked deeply into his blurry eyes, saw the shadow of death lurking, and told him to take his sorry Southern ass to church.  He bowed his head and did as he was told, getting there early so that he could shamefully conceal himself in the half shadows of the back pew.

Josh was a young boy sitting just off the main aisle with his grandmother. She held his hand and looked straight ahead, stared at the rough wooden cross behind the altar and reprioritized her prayer list in her head.  The boy’s soul hurt because he had made his mother cry the evening before, and, he knew, even at his age, how soft and fragile she was.  Adding to his sorrow, it was only two days gone that the family mule had died.  As tears rolled down his cheeks, he manfully searched his heart for a true pathway that would help him find redemption.  He figured church was a pretty good place to start.  Sensing his emotional turmoil, his grandmother reached over and wiped away his tears.

Josh’s grandmother stopped by her daughter’s house every Sunday at 8:45 am sharp to pick up her grandson and then lovingly walked him, as she thought of it, across God’s doorstep.  No one else in the family even occasionally felt that same evangelical calling.  She always dressed nicely but plainly and expected him to be equally neat and clean.  He always tried his best to live up to her expectations.  After the service, they religiously went to the local Bojangles to share an order of chicken nuggets and a medium-size sweet tea with lemon.

Given that faith clearly appears to be waning in the world at large, there were very few younger adults in this aging rural Mississippi congregation.  As a seeming counterpoint to this trend, a young couple sat at the end of a pew on one side of the church.  She sat quietly, eyes cast down, holding her new baby in her arms, looking like an Italian Renaissance painting of the Madonna and Child.  Her husband was in an illicit off and on workplace romance with an old high school sweetheart.  And, he was being none too discrete.  Using his crazy bone to think with more than his brain, he thought he was hiding all this from her.  At this point, he had no shame, no contrition, and had thrown common sense and decency to the wind.  But, she clearly knew ….. as surely as if God himself had told her ….. and prayed as she sat there that he would find the moral courage to come clean and repent.  She did not yet want to give up on him.

An old man wearing a worn suit tapped his cane on the floor.  He had been a veteran in a segregated unit in World War II.  He had well earned medals from the war which he kept in a cigar box by his bed.  His wife had died early on from cancer.  He missed her every day and would cut a small bouquet of flowers from his garden in her memory every Sunday that he had something blooming.  He was the only church elder left and the only one needed it seemed.  His main task was to pass the collection plate from pew to pew midway through the service, between the benediction and the sermon.  He would  collect the loose change, as there was seldom any paper money, and then put it in a black velvet, drawstring bag for the preacher.  Good faith money he called it.

Less than thirty people regularly attended the Sunday service.  They were the faithful, although all had some degree of sin and grace mixed together, to varying degrees, in their hearts and souls.  The preacher carefully crafted his Holy Fire sermons to tip the balance toward grace.  

Preacher Man stood resolute at the penultimate moment of the service, eyes still shining with fervor, humming to himself the opening words to the closing hymn as the church pianist, a 9 year old girl child musical prodigy, played a loop of the opening chords dolce on the keys (her version of Mississippi John Hurt’s recording of “I’ll Fly Away”) while she waited for a sign that the preacher was ready.  Catching a look from the preacher, she deftly switched her tone to con brio, and the preacher fell right in with her,starting to clap on the one and the three, his soft but commanding baritone guiding the faithful to full voice

As the hymn came to an epiphanous end, the faithful gathered themselves and began to leave the cool, cleansing dimness of the old church.  The preacher greeted everyone at the door and thanked them warmly for coming.  Soft sunlight drifted down serenely through the top of the loblolly pines.  As they walked the shaded path back to their ramshackle but well kept homesites, an angel would slip in beside them, place a comforting hand on their shoulder, and mystically conjure up God’s voice quietly whispering in their ear words of encouragement and faith. 

Josh asked his grandmother if he could treat her this week at Bojangles.  She smiled and nodded, “yes.”  A little later, he quietly said, “Grandma, would you help me pick some wildflowers to take home to Momma?”.  She had to turn away to wipe her tears, but nodded her ascent.  

When they had ordered at Bojangles and were looking for a table, Josh noticed a man sipping coffee at a nearby table.  “That’s the man from church,” he said to his grandmother.  Then, he walked over, stuck out his hand and said, “Hey, Mister.  I’m Josh.  Hope to see you at church again next week.  We’re glad you joined us today.”  His grandmother came over and added, “Bless you, young man.”

Epilogue

Sinner-man took a leap of faith and joined AA again.  He met Josh and his grandmother after church one Sunday several months later and told them they had shown him unmerited mercy.  Josh’s mother had OD’d on OxyContin a few months previously.

Marianne first had a “Come to Jesus” talk with David.  He agreed to attended couples counseling.  They were working on a trial reconciliation until David had a second affair.  Then, things got low down and real.  She told him she was pretty sure that she could raise their son on her own and politely but decisively cut him loose.  She quit going to church for a while, but came back looking to renew and strengthen her faith.  

Elijah, the church elder, entered a senior-care facility where he grew flowers for the lady residents.  He married one of the ladies there when God granted him unexpected grace and reset his heart – allowing him to start a new chapter in his life.

Just before Josh’s grandmother died, he told her that he was joining the military and would serve in her honor.  She smiled and gently squeezed his hand.  She asked to be  laid to rest beside her daughter to whom she hoped to bring peace to her troubled spirit.

Lizzie, the piano prodigy, got herself into Juilliard, worked on some movie scores after graduating, collaborated with Rhiannon Giddens on the music for one of her solo albums, played at various music festivals around the country and in Europe, and taught  music composition at different colleges in the South.  She said she had a restless creative spirit.  But, she also maintained close emotional ties to her Mississippi roots.

Preacher Man was sitting in a small office attached at the back of the church that he called “The Confessional.” He sat there, lost in prayerful memories, thinking back to that recent Sunday when they had sung “I’ll Fly Away,” and he thought to himself, “Am I the last of my kind.”  Shortly after that day of self-reckoning, he’d closed and locked the doors of the old church for what he thought would be the last time.  He did it because he couldn’t shake a darkening cloud of doubt that he could no longer adequately minister to his flock.  

Several months later, an angel was sent by God to reopen his eyes and rekindle his faith.  She showed up on his front porch one morning slightly drunk but full of redemptive fire.  She told him to take his sorry ass back to his church – there was still aspects of God’s work he should be doing.  He started to speak, but she had vanished into thin air.  Dutifully and somewhat fearfully, he started down the pine shaded path to the church where he met Marianne out walking with her young son.  “Preacher,” she said, “let’s reopen the church as a food bank.  You know it’s a necessary and meaningful service we could offer to the community, and you and I both need something positive to do.  Will you do it with me, Friend?”  He looked back at her, slightly astonished, but said.  “Miss Marianne, I’d love to.

With some help from local farmers, they opened three weeks later as a fresh market on a bright, clear Saturday morning.  It wasn’t too long before ladies from the community were bringing them freshly baked bread and mason jars of canned fruit and vegetables to give out.  Marianne started contacting the two local grocery stores and the area food distribution center for contributions.  With hard work, some good luck, and God’s Grace, they were able to open the fresh market for a second day each week and to create an emergency stockpile of non-perishable goods.  

Sinner-man showed up initially for assistance, but soon became a faithful volunteer and did all the needed handyman maintenance and repairs on the church.  He would frequently bring his guitar to church where he and the preacher would harmonize in the waning sunlight and soft shadows of the day.  They sang Nina Simone, African American spirituals, country gospel, and occasionally some Delta blues.

As time went by, The Old Wooden Church Food Collective, welcomed a young lawyer from the Equal Justice Initiative and framed out a small office for him.  They added free early child development services with volunteer medical personnel from the county hospital one morning a week.  All this vital activity was miraculously accommodated within the confines of a small, country church.  For Preacher Man, his former doubts were now completely gone.  He was again serving God and the community in what genuinely felt like a meaningful way.  

On Sundays, Marianne would drive him to the church and set up a small circle of folding chairs.  Informally but with joyous purpose, people would come to join the old preacher with the soft baritone to sing hymns and just sit and talk openly about their lives.  One Sunday, on the ride home, he asked her if she thought that he was still contributing.  He said he didn’t want her to feel like everything was falling on her shoulders.  Marianne told him that it was his spiritual strength alone that kept everything running.  He smiled and was deeply touched by her words.

Lizzie played and beautifully sang an unfiltered, emotional, Delta bred version of “Amazing Grace” at his funeral.

***

Two phrases used in this work for artistic purposes are taken from the song Last of My Kind by Jason Isbell:  “clapping on the one and the three” and “ am I the last of my kind.”