But first an otherworldly version of “He Leadeth Me” by Olive Sallee’s two grown boys, Ronny and Quick. That’s them, standing before God and all His corn, and also Justin Ryder’s half-blind Appaloosa, Mary-Ellen. They are pulling the notes out of their fiddles like they were chicken gizzards, all for the good of the Jurystown Baptist Church’s Sunday Revival.
Those noises help to advance the pass-along jar between the clusters of those womenless boys in the crowd who are tap-tap-tapping their quick-short fingernails on the sleeves of their thermal undershirts like they’re counting down the beats until it’s all over. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s something that needs to stop being one thing so it can start being something else.
Olive loves her boys, just as she loves the king-size Newport menthols she smokes at the very back of the canvas tent at the very end of every revival meeting, when Brother Rex lays down his Bible with one declarative thump and stomps down the aisle with his arms raised like a welterweight, sniffing up all the stink from a congregation that smells like the inside of a Sunday morning mason jar. Yes, she loves her boys maybe as much, though they are both fools: Quick, more than the other one.
Sometimes, though, all those sounds accidentally start to weave themselves into real music, if you let the notes drift away from you, off into the air, above your thinking mind.
Douglas Hauck, who has gathered up all the attention over there at that cottonwood tree, sways to something he probably has heard before. It’s not so much what you think you hear, it’s how it all carries, into a wide stillness, into the soft unborn skin of nightfall. Douglas, all forty-two troubled years of him, sways because he doesn’t know how to do anything different anymore.
Beryle Bean, who is frequently called Saint Beryle — and not for any good reason other than she is unmarried and not especially ashamed of it — watches for her two dogs, who scattered off into the nearby cornfield. Twenty minutes, now, without any distinctive bark, she can still hear their hooooools far off, practically into Benny Thompson’s potato field. Those hounds make a more tolerable kind of music, in her opinion, than those boys who play their confounding fiddles.
“Olive, I am struggling,” Douglas says to her after the service. He lights her third Newport cigarette of the post-sermon with the disposable lighter he keeps in his jacket pocket to impress the smokers in the congregation. The women smokers. He thinks it makes him look acceptably sexual.
There is a hard slate sky carved upon the horizon, and Olive studies it carefully. She knows the wrecking ball nature of the weather this time of year — they all do — and this sky promises meanness.
“We all struggle, Douglas,” she says. “Each in our own way. We try not to talk about it to the uninterested, which, frankly, includes me. We look to Brother Rex for answers.”
“Yes, well. Him. I’m not sure he’s as well qualified as he claims. I asked him before his sermon if I could see his official papers — proof of theological courses, or degrees or even certification — and he said God Himself chose him, not any particular college. He said he is a man who has been blessed, unlike me, or anyone else in this rabble. He said his job was — is — to save those in frantic need of salvation. That’s a direct quote, by the way: ‘anyone else in this rabble.’ And then he asked me if my bank might consider making a donation to next month’s Great Pals’ Family Picnic Day over in Oslee Valley.”
Olive sighs.“Boy, that’s a long and strained answer to a question I did not ask,” she says, and clears her throat. “Like I said, we all struggle, and now isn’t the time to whimper about it. But I’m sure you have more important things on your mind this afternoon, don’t you? Like the color of Saint Beryle’s panties? Or the beads of sweat that trickle between those thin bosoms? I see how you stare at her chest, Douglas. Studying that little sunburned patch of skin. Would it interest you to know that Beryle doesn’t bother to wear underpants anymore? Not since she caught that infection. Maybe you’d like to consult with Brother Wade about that. I hear it cleared up for him. Eventually.”
“This thing. This creature of marrow and conceit, of blood and retribution.” Brother Rex exhaled, exhausted and loud, and he palmed his face with an already damp handkerchief. “This thing,” he said again, and wiped away the appropriate number of tears, which was the exact number as Christ’s disciples.
“Why would you say that?” says Douglas. “Beryle and I are friends. We sit beside each other at Bible study, that’s all. We — sometimes we — why would you say that, Olive?”
“I see the way you look at her, Douglas. And Brother Rex has noticed. It’s painful to watch you swerve so far off the path he’s set for us. That you think he’s unqualified is an insult. We know about you.”
“You know about me?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I have no idea what you mean. Beryle and I are friends, that’s all.”
“We know what you say when you think you can’t be overheard. We know your heart, Douglas.”
“My heart? You don’t even know my address, Olive. You don’t even know the names of my cats. You don’t know my desires, how could you? I don’t write them down, I don’t tell myself what they are. I live with them, and I pray for them to go away. You don’t know me. You said it yourself: you’re uninterested.”
Olive Sallee hears the singular sound of her boys’ fiddles drift down from a great distance, somewhere from inside an inimical churn of wind not quite ready to strip away the corn and tear out the bruised throats of Beryle Bean’s awful hounds.
“That boy, Douglas. That drowned boy from Sunbury Lake. Do you still remember him?”
I have just about worn my legs out, swimming, far past four o’clock, far past the dock, far past the dogs, past anyone who might recognize my bobbing shape so far from the narrow thumb of a hardpan beach.
I am premeditatedly naked, for the first time wholly hip to my fully-charged young man’s skin. There is young Connor and his older half-sister Anna, and I want to impress her and I regret that I forget him. He follows me, oh, just follows me further than I intended to swim, being so submerged in so subversive a bliss that it’s been denied me ever since. The boy followed me beyond the shallows and Anna spit on my face, a prolonged roar at my disgrace, humiliates my soft boyish body, and I ought to forgive myself, ought to restrain myself from these aqueous desires, and some days I become submerged again, dead-skinned and numb to it all over again.
I have just about worn my legs out, running, far past those days, all a miserable haze, oh, dear Beryle/Anna, all in a wildly orgasmic maze, and you will never hear me cry out in any of my remaining prayers how much I want to be near you, to lay down beside you, how much I want to reach for you, but, yes, I am only a fallen leaf shaped like water disguised as a leaf, and I drift, you know, I just drift so close but distant and out of your way.
“So long ago,” Douglas says.
Irregular laps of lake water clutched the shore, sideways swirls formed from below, each swathe more luxuriant and urgent as he pulled the boy in. Everything was liquid and impermanently drawn, except for the boy. Connor was a doughy little boy at five, and still alive, as most boys are at that age, and not this sodden and heavy little shape with blue lips and cold plastic flesh. He used to have spindles for limbs and hair as yellow as corn, and now everything was the ash and purple clump Douglas pulled behind him. Connor probably used to wear a grin that disappeared behind shyness, he was just a little guy, after all. Just a regular, everyday little boy, who hid when the Polaroid came out of the box, who likely sought treasure under decomposing trees, and who quite possibly laughed at farts and toads and things that fell out of his nose. A typical boy who just solidly closed the door on everything good in the rest of Douglas Hauck’s life.
“Douglas?” Olive says, her voice a flinty caw. “Earth to Douglas, hello? Can you hear me?”
Of course he hears her. He has heard her all his life. Oh, she assumes different names and genders, and always finds different excuses for humiliating him, but the tone is consistent: cruel and impatient, beneath a thin veneer of pity. A ‘why aren’t you normal?’ taunt that transcends schools and jobs and conversations. He can’t make that voice go away. God himself frequently uses that tone on him.
“I hear you,” he says quietly. “Of course I hear you, I always hear you.”
And he screams.
And Ronny’s and Quick’s fiddles stop making whatever noise it was they were making.
The high and righteous Brother Rex saith unto Saint Beryle, “Let there be long nights and slick thighs between man and woman in this darkness,” and it did not come to pass, as the woman declined the advances of such an imperious ass.
“Nothing ventured,” he said, and moved on to the next princess: this week, it was that cute divorced redhead, Loren Clayton, daughter of Wilfred, owner of the infamous Bait and Bar down on Oxford Street.
Rex. Was that even his real name, Rex? Why not just call himself, ‘Would you like to see my Dong, Sweetheart’? Amen, put it away, stud, not interested. It was the same thing every Sunday, the same dirty dance between the closure of the sermon and the opening of the potato salad bowls behind the big tent.
There was a sacrament of cruelty in Brother Rex’s services. Beryle herself was a New Testament kind of gal, but Rex kept pounding out those Golden Oldie Testament favorites about revenge and pride:
But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. Good old Exodus, a real people-pleaser. And “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “All is vanity.” Ah, yes, Ecclesiastes. Brother Rex really was color blind.
Never mind. It was hard to mind such things when her two hounds, Rosie and O’Donnell, were loose in a wide open cornfield. It wasn’t like them to burst out of the Ford and chase whatever scent they caught. They were better trained than that… unless those big thunderheads unnerved them. Once she got the girls back into the truck, she’d head home, not hang around for the fellowship supper. A good chance this could turn into a night down in the storm cellar, stuck with a couple of shamed dogs, stripping the corn silk out of their fur.
A scream — or something else, something more primitive, more deeply wounded (burn for burn, wound for wound) — lifted from the big cottonwood, now steeped in cloud cover and surrounded by clots of white short-sleeved shirts and beige linen skirts. The scene resembled an unfinished painting that mimicked motion, the finishing strokes yet to be determined.
“Hey, I know that guy,” she heard herself say, then realized she could not remember his name, or even who he was.
“I never meant for him to bleed so much,” Olive Sallee says. “I never saw Ronny move so fast, with Quick right behind him. Dropped their fiddles right there on the grass. As soon as that guy — Douglas, I guess his name was — as soon as he pushed me, both my boys come running. I mean, can you blame them? The guy was crazy. I never meant for him to bleed so much. I was only teasing him a little. Ruined my good Sunday blouse, too. Then the sky opened up like that, I don’t know what happened next. Hey, did anyone ever find Brother Rex?”
Sometimes, all those sounds accidentally start to weave themselves into real music, if you let the notes drift away from you, off into the air, above your thinking mind.