I don’t even need to really get Judy on board, I know she’s just bored. With this episode in our lives, and everything. I can barely pick up on her little voice out in the hallway so sweetly chastising those children back to bed. Lord knows if it was the ringleader, or all of them, in cahoots again. God those are scary times. They put the boy out on a mattress they found by Lake Murray. I caught them riding an exposed septic field on the upturned roof of the dog house. And the oldest boy and the middle girl set the back wood on fire and denied it even to the faces of the firemen. Confessed in just disgusting, snotty tears that night. It was awful. All the worst definitions of pathetic. Judy has the patience of a person who grew up a smart mean child. The really alluring way a witch woos a princess. A worm doesn’t stop being a worm just because there’s a fishhook in her.
I know it may not seem exciting, but to me it is like living scripture, I am walking twenty miles on faith that another traveler left a message in a journal that will inform me which direction to head for the next twenty. I quite possibly have never worried about my son’s safety more so than I am being gripped to shreds by right now.
Worry is the lightest thing that’s too heavy to carry. I decide to leave it here in this shelter, in this journal, where I snored so hard I shook the mice from the rafters and awoke with a black bear cub and its mama curled up beside me in our den. I burnt the paper that held my breakfast. I filled every watertight container I have brimming with the lifeblood of this magical, wonder-filled forest.
And before she left, pack on, boots laced tight, hiking poles in one hand, Hailey hugged me, a good hug, full of that same lightning that passed through her hand into me last night. When that insurmountable intergenerational distance melts away at warp speed and through so much time and experience, we stand equals, young and old, both able to imbue one another with the exact form of energy the other needs. She may as well have thrown gasoline on the fire last night. She made this old footsore man feel young again. For a flash in a pan. For five minutes. And she got to see her father, in me. Hundreds, no, thousands of miles, distance be damned, it’s all distorted through the filter of emotions. Every mile. So many thousands of feet, maybe ten thousand or more foot steps.
Knowing that doesn’t make taking one any easier.
My gut instinct is to call it a sign, but no. Jeremiah says, this is life.
Without walls. Without society’s endless game of hide and seek.
Hide from the world, seek products to fill the void.
This is what we’re so afraid of.
The deafening loudness of a quiet life in the country.
How this tiny insignificant spring can cancel out the noise
off so many other things.
I can’t even hear myself think.
“Jeremiah can. He believes the church is keeping people from going after God. We’re ruining Jesus’ philosophy by presenting him as untouchable, unrealistic, embodied in sacred language, with you, pastors, up on a pulpit preaching and us, sheep, facing forward. These long diatribes about sanctuary design. Mobile benches and picnic tables. Every service a different array. Giant stone fireplaces with rocking chairs in front, and the pastor walks around serving food and refilling cups. More than doors, he wants open windows, giant tents, walls that roll up and fire-pits in fields and secondary sermons, conversations and getting lost in the woods. He wants church equal parts daycare, assisted living, community rehabilitation, mixed with everything national parks and campgrounds already are. He says there will be gardens and goats and chickens and the church, an immortal food source for community.
He says we got it wrong. Jesus worshiped us. He died to feed us, to strengthen us, called himself our lamb. Jeremiah says Jesus was communicating to him specifically, for him to hear these ideas. He says every true Christian feels like that, like Christ specifically lived and died to transmit a powerful, revolutionary message direct to their heart. To shake us awake, not to worship, but to be the new Jesus in the world.
John, he says this enough that I remember it all. He says there aren’t enough crosses. If we all walk toward love with determination, knowing we will likely be persecuted in the process, there aren’t enough crosses, aren’t enough Romans, for all of us. As long as good people are afraid to suffer for goodness, good people will be props for bad people. He says all this to our therapist. And the man just nods. Nods and doesn’t respond.
John, I know I’ve said too much, but your son told me God put a shroud over him, and he doesn’t know what people hear and see when they look at him, the truth is masked, they don’t actually hear his words, or see his face. He calls it his veil. He calls himself the loneliest man in existence. He says, with full confidence, he’s never been happy. Not once. He knows happiness exists, he’s seen it in our faces. But believes he’s never felt it himself.
How can someone say that, and think it’s true?”
Up early working on a novel I’m really excited about, I call it ‘Father and Son’, for now. It’s an atypical journey on the Appalachian Trail, in which a son takes off on a thru hike without talking to anyone, and his father decides to put his career on hold and go after him. Dad and I mapped it out when he hiked with me the first 90 miles of my trip to NY, and I’ve been working on it, slow yet steady, ever since. Here’s a little piece:
“There is a free ride in pride, but not even a chance of one on a hike. You are going to carry yourself and everything you own for every single one of these miles, or you are going to call the endeavor by a different title. Stroll, perhaps. Good heart healthy, low impact exercise, maybe. A walk in the woods, for the short sighted and uncreative. But a hike. To call it a hike. To take a hike. It is not about valley views. It is not about making big miles. It is about needing to be someplace you aren’t already, and employing the cheapest mode of transportation available, your feet, as the principle vehicle to carry you there. The beauty of it, is that it does not get any simpler, or more complex than that. If you’re out for twenty miles, you’re on a twenty miler.
You’re only on a hike if your goal is big adventure.”
I woke up sweating while it was dark out. In a dream, I cracked open shell after shell pouring perfectly cooked scrambled eggs from them. With each orange yellow fluff my disbelief and doubt grew, leading me to another. When I woke I asked myself in a whisper why a grown man would dream about eggs. Then I laughed in my head for calling myself grown. I laid my head back on the pillow and solved all the world’s problems until I fell back to sleep.
In the morning light I walked into the Carolina room and searched out the windows at the lake. The sun was dancing on water and I thought about our neighbor, swimming back and forth across it every morning even into his nineties. I made coffee. I sat and read a book in front of the window, distracted by crests of small, wind-blown waves throwing light off the lake. Jeremiah shuffled into the hallway from the guest bedroom and I thought I should have made more coffee.
“Dad,” Jeremiah said shortly.
“Make some,” I said.
“Good morning,” he said. I continued to read. “Want some eggs?” he asked.
“Not really.” I turned the page. Jeremiah set his plate down and returned to the kitchen to get his mug.
“I made extra, we’re out of eggs,” he said. “When will mom be home?”
“Later.” I was staring at the first sentence of a new chapter. Jeremiah was being sarcastic.
“Something strike you father?” he asked.
“This question,” I said. I was looking down at it.
“Easy. That question is the hard one,” Jeremiah said.
“Can God make a rock so big he can’t pick it up?” I asked. Jeremiah hummed and I looked at him. Moments like these set in stone that I had truly made him.
“Yes,” Jeremiah said. My eyes remained focused on his, but I lowered my forehead.
“How?” I asked.
“It already has,” Jeremiah said. I asked him what he meant and his phone started to vibrate loudly against the table. He picked it up and left the room. The sun was beginning to gain height in the sky and I knew by twelve the air would be too hot to work in. I donned my overalls and went outside.
In my small, backyard garden there were high, green corn stalks with fat cobs getting fatter, squash fading yellow from white striped green, and almost certainly flesh and red colored potatoes no bigger than pebbles underground. I sucked in loudly through my nose.
As my father and I walk past the dollar store we see a man selling watermelons. Dad walks toward him but says nothing to me.
“Morning,” the man offered us. He is a fat man, wearing a shirt with two front pockets on his chest, tucked into dark blue, denim Dickies work pants. I want to tell my Dad the strained buttons on the man’s shirt make sideways looking mouths where cloth stretched into arches struggling to stay connected while watermelon man’s mass pulls the fabric almost skin tight. I like him. His cheeks were red as the inside of his produce.
“Watermelon crop,” Dad says.
“Yessir, good looking too. Fifty cent,” the fat man says. I look up at my dad and see him touch his chin.
Dad hums and we turn around. I do not know why, but I feel like crying. I don’t necessarily want a watermelon, but not buying one upsets me.
“Fifty cent isn’t bad daddy,” I say. Dad makes a little noise but never turns down. We walk into the dollar store. Dad examines, in his palm, a list written out by my mother. We walk the aisles, every single one of them, and approach the checkout. Dad shakes his head as he pays and I stare at his hands as he drops two quarters into his left pocket. We leave the store, pass the mustard yellow chevy truck, and slowly veer toward the watermelon man. I can see him shuffle his feet in the distance but I do not turn my head away. Dad faces him. I follow.
“Twenty five,” Dad says. He hands the watermelon man a quarter and me the melon. It hurts my hands but I can not stop smiling. When we get home mom scolds us for not needing a watermelon, and I never get a chance tell her what a bargain.
I tried to grow watermelons the summer after dad died and they never panned out fully. Jeremiah walked up from the backyard and stood beside me. He handed me a jar of water. I told him thank you and we stood silent for a few minutes.
“This looks good,” he said.
“I’d pay you to sit out here with your slingshot.”
“Probably shoot you.”
“Not while I’m out here. To watch for rabbits.” He told me I should get a good snake population going and I wondered what had made his generation so different than mine. I smiled though, and wanted to tell him I loved him. “Turn on that hose,” I said. He mumbled something around the phrase ‘turned on’ but I took the hose and watered my cabbage. Jeremiah went inside and I thought about my next sermon, which remained unwritten. The gospel was Pentecostal and I wanted it to be a hair raiser. I went inside at four thirty and Jeremiah had just showered. Judy was not home yet and it was all the same to me. I took a shower in my bathroom. Feeling fresh I sat down on the couch and my half Siamese cat Theodore curled up beside my knee. I could feel him purring and I stared in the direction of old television shows. Theo’s eyes half-closed and Andy Griffith carried me back to my childhood.
I love making music because it simplifies the equation. It cancels out my thoughts and forces my brain and hands to behave simultaneously; mouth vibrating, diaphragm stretched and shrinking, arm and limp wrist bent or pushing. The little black dots connected by thin black lines bring purpose and art to my rural soul. Playing my trombone makes me feel like even though I can not impress people every moment, I am doing something primarily unachievable to most. I do marching band and it makes me feel like an athlete. My peers remind me I am not. If I knew when to cry I would. But something powerful pushes me. When I play the horn, it works better than crying.
I was in front of my computer watching the cursor blink. I put a sentence down, then another, and soon I was done and off to bed. Judy only woke me when she first laid down. I kissed her face and slept again.
In a dream I saw my dad sitting at my table in the Carolina room, dark out, moon bright and greenish yellow. I saw my garden through the window, but the corn was even taller.
“God built us a rock,” dad said.
“Can he pick it up?” I asked.
“What does that mean?”
“He can roll it though.”
“Along. But it’s too big to carry.”
“Can he control it?”
“What about the bible? Church? Faith?”
“Well. One quarter’s a better bargain than two.”
I woke up sweating. When I preached later that morning I could see Jeremiah’s eyes.
He never looked away. I love my son, and he drove back to college right after church. Judy and I ate lunch out in town after the service. That night, when I undressed, I unfolded the bulletin that had been in my pocket. On the back, in blank space, I had written the words ‘bargain and roll’. I thought about my sermon and wanted to quit my job. But I looked at Judy, snoring softly, and fell straight to sleep.
“Set that chicken and…what do you call that other stuff down here again, I should know this.” Carol loops around the island and has her hands rested against the immaculate greyscale marble on the other side, lips pushed out while she looks up squinting at the ceiling.
“Fixin’s,” I say with a forced southern twang.
“Fixings, exactly, right there on the island if you don’t mind. I hear Bob getting his self together, he should be in here shortly and we’ll all fix a plate. Fix a plate. Hey, maybe that’s where that comes from!”
“Maybe!” I offer excitedly. “Dad always said it came from the Great Depression, when you couldn’t necessarily count on the quality of the meat, or meat altogether. He said a good set of sides could ‘fix’ that for you.” I’m ruffling the plastic and pretending like I’m doing something to prepare this piping hot food sealed in styrofoam and plastic and grease soaked cardboard lined in shiny white wax.
“Is that true Pastor, or one of your tall tales?” Carol speaks as she truly dissects the flimsy plastic bags and begins arranging the containers in a line, potatoes beside the gravy, green beans popped open and steaming, biscuit box beside the chicken bucket and the crinkly bag balled and buried in the trash inside a cabinet at her feet.
“True, that he said it, yes, but beyond that there’s no telling. Dad doesn’t really speak in plain fact. You’re always kind of trying to discern just how tall the story he’s telling is.”
“Oooo,” she exclaimed, “I’d love to meet that man sometime. Sounds like such a character.”
“Yes, and some characters are best known by their stories rather than in person. He can be a handful, so to speak.”
“Mr. Parker, has anyone checked out King Jesus Loves His Mustard Greens?”
“Yes Beth, I’m sorry, it’s out.”
“How about Spicy Kale and the Kingdom of God?” Parker shakes his head solemnly. “It was a long shot. Okay, I’ve seen it a hundred times, but, what about Gospel Salad?”
“Yep. That’s a good one.” Parker stands from where he was seated in the bend of a horseshoe shaped set of tables, in the rotund church library. The ceiling was twenty feet up, and the shelves climbed that high, handmade ladders on hammer wrought rails encircling and keeping guard. “When the cucumber-
“Mary the mother of King Jesus.”
“Sings The Ballad of Garlic Oil it makes me laugh every time, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. And that’s a lot.” Parker has selected the thin case that holds the film, specifically designed to resemble the sleeve of a slim old pamphlet style book. The bottom shelf was children’s education and entertainment, right behind his seat, down low, almost hidden.
“That’s a serious song.”
“Really? It’s all about how garlic isn’t really good though, I thought it was ironic. Because garlic is delicious.”
“No it isn’t Parker. Garlic in certain things helps make those things delicious. But no one eats garlic alone. It isn’t good on its own. That’s what the song is about. How God makes decisions to put things that don’t taste good into other things because all in all it makes everything more delicious. But if you ate a handful of garlic all on its own, before you had ever had it in a soup, you might leave it out of every recipe forever on afterward.”
“Well said little Beth. You’ve learned me a thing this morning.”
“Thanks,” she offered casually, the young girl, no older than thirteen, behind a flip of shiny dirty blond hair and gone.
What are we feeding to these kids, Parker thought.
Thanks to Staples my manuscript is published (lol). It’s kind of amazing, books by athletes, politicians, celebrities, are published all the time. But a lifelong writer, keeping journals since I was ten (yes I have them all, maybe a two foot stack altogether) who can talk about politics, God, art, acting, farming, life and death and everything in-between without even being heckled or argued with (seriously check my posts, no one says a word, that’s rare) is rejected constantly, and treated like desiring publication is just not accessible for me, told I’m not doing enough, to wait a little longer, until I’m a little older.
I don’t know what you think about the world we live in. But when we’re tracking down teenagers who can throw a ball or take a hit, or sing every note except for one steadily and with good tone, that’s the society we get. Our writers and poets are like raccoons we say are encroaching on our city spaces, though to them, they’ve always been here. And we’re the new ones. And we leave amazing things outside in the trash.
Well, I’m a real writer, I’ve only been left scraps to feed my work, and still, I’m changing the world, one farm, one show, one job, one conversation at a time.
Eh, I’m not mad about it. I’ve been doing this so long, I can’t stop. I may be the last real writer left. Get mad at me college professors and professional chefs, but I don’t believe you’d write if no one paid you to do it. Just my belief. But I would suffer, I would steal writing time at the end of eleven hour work days laboring, I would die to put my voice on paper. On stages. On television sets and in movie theaters.
I would go to Staples and have polite, fake conversation with the guy who works there because he saw the title and thought it was interesting, and called me and Ashley hippies. I’ll even forgive that. Because it meant someone read even just a handful of words I put down. They brought them back up and breathed life into them.
I want publication in that sense. And I’ve realized, I actually don’t need an industry that doesn’t really seem to enjoy literature the same way I do anyway. Doesn’t really seem to enjoy it at all. But hey, that’s the world you get when your stars play glorified fetch or only know how to barely smile into a camera.
I’ll just be over here. Ordering copies of my books from Staples, filling up journals with shit just to see what it will compost into.
I’m your writer. Maybe the last one ever.
Don’t let me pass by unrecognized just because I never made the football team.