When I was about 9 years old, my mother acquired a typewriter and put it upstairs on my desk in the playroom/study my little brother and I later shared. That summer I set out to type my life story. The problem was, at that point I had not lived much of a life and imagining I had anything to write was really presumptuous of me. I realize that what I write here is much the same. You may find nothing of interest here. You may find stories that evoke memories of your own. I hope you find nothing here that offends you. Most of the stories here will be fiction with elements of historic truth, but even history is details and facts being what they are perceived, reported, and edited to be rather than what they literally were in the experience of each and all involved. As we read a story, it becomes our story because of the images we create in our mind. This is true also for history. Good fiction invites us to be part of the story and make it our own. Movies, as engaging as they are, take away the creative imagination, the process of creating an environment and characters in our mind's eye.
What you read here is incomplete and part of a process of writing, of getting somewhere. I am not there yet, wherever "there" might be. Perhaps I will not get "there," but will end up elsewhere.
These writings are intended to all be part of a larger story, but each will stand on its own when finished. I invite you to help me with details. I am not trying to be historically or geographically correct, but am trying to put together a readable, coherent story that symbolizes real and true experiences. Some of what is written here is from my experience, or the way I remember it and the way I have interpreted it, not to report actual events, but to record human experiences as true as I have felt them. I realize some things will be vague and need editing. I invite you to be part of that process as the stories wind their way into others.
Amy, Ben, and Harry
© 1992 Allen W. Snider
The radio announcer said that three prisoners escaped last night. A guard left one of the gates unlocked when a service truck came to deliver food. Sheriff Thornton indicated the escaped cons might be somewhere in the county. The posse is out looking for them, but rain is expected on Saturday. Hardly anyone worries much. Prisoners escape but are always caught within three or four days. The only prisoners that had never been caught in the forty year history of the prison were found buried in a cemetery eight years ago less than half a mile from the prison. Sheriff Thornton will have the escapees behind bars by Monday at the latest. The TV stations ran the pictures of the convicts, along with artistic renditions of possible disguises. Maynard Jay Wills, Donny Wayne Blanchard, and Hiram Benjamin Gregory were the three escapees. The Sheriff says he hopes to catch them quickly, because they are all dangerous. The morning newspaper attests that Blanchard is related to the guard who left the gate unlocked.
Amy drives toward downtown. Shopping is not what she wants early Friday afternoon but today she has to get out of the house. How could he be so stubborn, so self-centered? How could he be so wrong about her? But then, Ben had always been the sort of person to act as though he cared about a person’s feelings one day and completely neglect them the next.
Ben is charming and outgoing. He usually feels that whatever he says or does is fine with everyone concerned until they tell him otherwise. Amy tells him often enough. Local people liked him and he regularly proclaims that he is the man of the house. Whenever there is any discussion on the issue, he pulls out his Bible and shows Amy where it said the man is the head of the wife. Although his mother can be found several times a week at the church, usually with her Bible nearby or under her arm, Ben conveniently neglects most of the rest of that Bible and attends church only at Christmas, Easter, the occasional funeral, and important social events.
Amy thinks about these things as she turns into the parking lot and looks for an empty space near the front of Sears. Ben can be so frustrating, but she loves him more than she has ever loved anyone in her life and she cannot imagine life without him. He is a joy most of the time and his confidence is infectious. He just lacks sensitivity when he sometimes needs it in abundance.
Ben is tall, athletic, and popular. His blonde, curly hair frames a nearly perpetual and dimple-cheeked smile. He always seems to have a story, a comment, or a compliment. Ben exemplifies “laid back.” He fishes, camps, hunts, works when he wants to work, and spends a lot of time with friends. Ben was drawn to Amy because she is quietly attractive and more than a little contemplative. She is intuitive and loving, passionate and compassionate – everything that Ben seems not to be.
Amy and Ben had met at State University. After graduating from high school and spending three years in the army, he had worked his way up to manager at the local supermarket, and decided to go to college. He was working on a degree in Civil Engineering and Amy was working on a masters in literature. He was cramming for a Fall final in Butler Library and she was doing research for a final paper in English literature when he literally bumped into her. As he picked up the book she had dropped, he noticed its title.
“Sorry. The Bear. Is this a hunting story?”
“Yes. The Bear is a story about hunting, about primal roots, about relationships and dark secrets, and about men in general.”
“Dark secrets, men in general? Seems a strange book for a young lady. Do you have any dark secrets?”
“Probably, but right now I need to work on this paper.”
“Oh, yeah. Excuse me. I am cramming for a Materials exam in the morning. I'll probably be here until they run me out of the library. I haven't seen you around here. Are you new?”
“I am working on my Master's Degree and just started this semester. I finished my B.A. at A&M and decided to come to State last spring.”
“No, I am going to teach.”
“I plan to work for some city government or the Corp of Engineers when I finish.”
“Corp of Engineers? Are you in the military?”
“No. I was in the army for three years, but I used to fish when I was a kid and saw lots of Corps signs around. Thought it might be nice to work on big projects.”
“Good luck on your exam tomorrow. I have to go now.”
“Thanks. Maybe I will see you around. I will be around after the exam tomorrow. Maybe we can have lunch.”
“I'd like that, but I really do need to go.”
“See you tomorrow then?”
“This will be fine.”
That was six years ago. They'd had lunch and their relationship from that point was almost a cliche -- one thing led to another. Ben graduated and works for an engineering firm that designs city parks, corporation sites, public schools, and whatever other projects they can land. Amy teaches English literature at the community college.
Folks say that they balance each other, whatever that is supposed to mean, because right now Amy is so angry and hurt that she is about to do something out of character for Amy. With her Mastercard in hand she is on her way to indulge a shopping fury and the man of the house can pay the bill.
The sun will set in a couple of hours. The sound of the train whistle, heard so many times, goes nearly unnoticed as Harry sits, books spread out across the desktop, the word processor sitting idly. Intruding questions distract him as he tries to write a letter to his friend, explaining why he had done what he had done. Hymns play on the CD in the background as the train rumbles through town, just blocks away. Harry suddenly longs for the darkness that will offer a blanket of peace as the traffic dwindles. It is Friday and not a single thump thump of a powerful car stereo has been heard for over an hour.
“Are you ready to go home with me?” says Carol, as she steps into his office. “I am on my way home from the grocery store and stopped to see if my husband is ready to end his workday and go home.”
“I will be home in a few hours. I just want to finish what I have started here.”
”I won’t wait up long.”
“Ok. I’ll be home soon.” Until the past few weeks, Harry would finish his work and hurry home, but lately he is easily distracted and has trouble concentrating. “Fill my cup, Lord. I’m empty.” Harry reads what he has already written and begins typing again. The office is quiet and lonely. Harry finishes the letter and gets it ready for the mail, but he needs to work on his sermon. Home, even with Carol, would be much better than sitting here, agonizing over a sermon for Sunday. Harry copies what he had written to floppy disk, removes the disk, and puts the disk in his pocket. Then he picks up a couple of the books he was reading, flips the light switch off, shuts the door behind him, and heads for the back door of the church. Locking the door behind him, Harry walks to his car, consciously noting the cool breeze on his face. For an instant Harry is tempted to just walk past the car and keep on walking into the cool night, perhaps never to stop or think or worry again.
Harry drives the nine blocks to his house and arrives just in time to help Carol put the last of the groceries in the pantry. He looks at Carol as she put the cheese and pickles in the refrigerator, remembering the younger girl he had married twelve years ago. They met at college, dated a few times, and both believed it was right, so they married. There is more of Carol now and more of Harry too. Harry remembers how cute he thought Carol was when they used to jog together in the park. Cute is not the word he would use now, but he is more deeply in love with Carol than when he married her. The feeling has just changed -- matured. He wonders how Carol feels about him now. “I love you” just doesn’t come with the same twinkle of the eye and mischievous grin that it once did.
“I’m going to take a bath and go to bed. Are you going with me?”
“I still have to work on my sermon, but I will come to bed in a little while.” He walks into the spare bedroom, which doubles as a study and a sewing room, opens the window, and takes in the western breeze, feeling a certain release from the anxieties he was feeling earlier. Sitting at the small desk, Harry inserts the disk into the old word processor and installs the file. Opening it, Harry stares at the readout, reading through what he had written, and thinking about what more he might say that would be relevant to the people that would be in church Sunday. He knows that Lewis was having financial trouble that affected his marriage. Tim is working too many hours and barely has time for family, much less church or anything else. John Smith would be there, but would not seem to take a single word seriously. He is a tight-fisted, stubborn man of eighty-three years who is certain God owes him a place in heaven. Mary stays ill a lot these days and her back has started to curl from the degeneration in her spine. Little Jake will be in church. He gets himself ready and rides his bicycle every Sunday while his mother and brothers sleep late. Barbara will be there and Maurine will play piano. Sally will be there to make sure everything is as it should be at her church. John will sit on the back row and sing like a baritone angel.
A familiar whistle breaks the silence outside as another train comes thundering into town. The house is quiet, except for the occasional sloshing sound from the bathroom. Harry remembers when he would sneak into the bathroom and pretend to take pictures as Carol posed, bashfully covering herself with her hands or the towel. Not long ago, Harry thought he would venture to repeat that game, but Carol yelled, “Get out! You have your office. You took over the spare bedroom. You shut me out of all your places. This is the only damn place I have left to myself. And you’re intruding. Get out!” Harry knew she was right. He had filled his life with everyone else’s problems, with the anxieties of running a church, with the stress of trying to be creative and relevant every week, and he had neglected his own marriage. Now Carol is becoming more a stranger than the church members who regularly march into his office with some agenda, new or old.
Sheriff Thornton’s posse caught one of the escaped convicts, Maynard Jay Wills, Saturday afternoon as he was trying to sneak on a train leaving Red Oak. The Sheriff announced that he is concerned because the convicts split up soon after the escape. They would have been easier to catch if they had stayed together. They are all dangerous and guilty of multiple threats and acts of violence against society. He is glad they caught Wills, but they will still search just as intentionally until the other two were caught.
Saturday is supposed to be Harry’s day off, but today he has a funeral to conduct in Jackson. The Wright family had known Harry when he was a student pastor in Savoy, Texas and attending seminary in Dallas. Dan and Mary Wright had originally been from Mississippi, but moved to Savoy while he was there. When they learned that Harry was from Mississippi, they had one more reason to like him. They became close friends and Harry had performed their daughter Katherine's wedding. She was the real reason they had moved to Texas. While in her Junior year at Austin College, she became engaged to an Austin College Senior, Sam Henson. Dan and Mary Wright thought they would move to Texas and make sure that Kate finished college. They lingered in Texas long enough to get to know their new son-in-law and to feel comfortable that their daughter would be ok. Then they moved back home to Mississippi. Kate and Sam visited several times every year and Kate called at least once a week. The funeral was the first time Harry had seen Kate and Sam since the wedding. Harry wondered how Mary would manage with Dan gone and Kate in Texas, but then, she was active in her church and had several friends.
Allen W. Snider
Signs of winter still linger. It has been a dry one, but lately, cloudy days have been broken by melancholy, spring-fired sunsets, darkening into evening. Mackerel skies build into darkness and bring drops of piercing life to the freeze-dried ground, and sometime balls of arctic fury and winds that move southern things northerly. Today the sun peeks through the gray and white pillows, warming the ground as tiny green life pushes up from the ground. Green buds and adolescent leaves adorn the sleek, dark fingers of the old pecan tree in the front yard. Just after sunset, the clouds grow and rumble from the west and then from the north as a gentle breeze becomes zealous, bending and twisting the branches of the tree. The sky grows heavy and now flashes panoramic vision, like short clips from the past, as Jeff's imagination runs into the growing darkness. The memories rush in -- faces with smiles, mischievous girls, hungry children with snotty noses and dirt-streaked faces, broken bridges and broken dreams, golden white grass washed against fenceposts and creamed-coffee water gathered in pools near the doorstep as the sky unleashes its pounding.
Jeff Wetzel's wife and son are asleep in the house, but he can't sleep with the winds and rain forcing unsteady rhythms on the windows and the little air conditioner in the upstairs bedroom window. The house leaks where the unfinished addition is attached to the house. A towel on the floor in the hall is enough to soak up the water. When the rains stops, Jeff will climb on the roof and try to repair the leak again, but right now he goes to check on the sheep. They don't always seem to realize that they can stay warm and dry in the barn. The rain on the metal roof is nearly deafening at times, but the structure is sturdy. Jeff remembers the small tornado that briefly touched down in the pasture a few years ago, tearing up a few trees but the barn stood. The roof leaked where nails had popped loose and had to be sealed, but the barn stood.
Jeff’s thoughts run as deep as flood waters this night: I'll have to check the creek on my way to the barn. They say the creek ran quarter of a mile wide sometimes before we bought this place. We've lived here six years now and haven't seen it do anything more than flood part of the pasture. People leased this place from Grandpa when he went to the nursing home before he died seven years ago. They moved out because they were afraid of the water.
The rain is cold on my back. I hope the flashlight doesn't go out. I remember three years ago when we planted the crops too late because of a rain like this; the summer turned hot and dry and the bank took the new tractor. The cows had to be sold to keep the farm. Meg said that everything would work out and that I worried too much. She cried when I wasn't watching. All our neighbors were going through the same thing. Uncle Coot and most of the neighbors stayed. Coot is gone now. I still see something about Meg's smile that says she believes in me. In those moments I feel like I am twenty again, ready to take on God and the world. We won’t move until the floods wash us away together.
The rain is letting up a little. Maybe the creek will drain into the River before the rain gets heavy again. The River is low enough right now. Rushing waters sound like thunder in the dark. I shine the flashlight into the hazel waters that are only a few feet from the top of the deep creek. Those waters always know where they are going, never questioning, pushing, always knowing without thinking where they are going.
Grandpa nearly lost this place to the floods after he had given up two hundred acres to the Depression. His brother, Lazy Claude, had put up his part of the family estate on a gamble and lost. Grandpa let the two hundred acres go to keep his brother out of jail, but to no avail. Claude went to jail two years later for bad debts. Less than a month after he got out he was stabbed by a man who owed him money.
Dad moved to the city after the War and would not be a farmer. He said he didn't want me to have to work so hard as he had on the farm. He wanted me to go to college and become an engineer, but I always loved the farm and when Grandpa passed away, Dad gave in and let me have these forty acres of bottom lands that Grandpa had kept. I share-crop the two hundred acres that Grandpa had let go to save his brother and another seven hundred acres on the other side. I have raised cotton, soybeans, corn, and even some rice on this land. After plowing in the early spring, I like to sift a handful of this rich soil through my fingers and smell the richness that brings life.
The lightning has moved to the east now. Maybe the worst of this storm is past, but the waters still roar and thunder in the creek. The pasture is flooded but the sheep are all up at the barn. The horses are calm now that the storm is past. I'll check the bridge. I had to rebuild it two years ago when it washed out. I can't lose any more. The land is rich for growing things here, but the waters take nearly as much as they give. I am not a dead limb to be drawn by rushing waters to be left in branches of trees felled and still alive by the force and the giving of the water. I'll keep on fighting until I am used up. I'll fight nature, even if I should lose. I'll even fight you, God! Oh, give me strength to endure. I'm tired of fighting. I think I saw a lamb in the flash. Yes. The ewe had her lamb. And there is another. Funny thing about storms and pregnant sheep, it happens time and again. The thunder seems to induce labor. I'll get them in the barn now. They will be more calm now that the rain is letting up. I'll get them some hay.
I remember the faces of the girls when I first adopted them. We stood in front of the judge and he asked them outright, "Do you want this man to be your Daddy?" They both said, "Yes," with such excitement I had to hold back the tears and the lump I felt in my throat. They said they loved me. They had such powerful trust and wanted so much to be loved. I loved them and still do in every way I know how.
The rain is picking up again, but it is just a heavy sprinkle. Sounds heavier than it really is on the barn roof. The red clay sticks to my feet as I get the lambs into the barn. I manage to kick some off my boots and walk a little lighter for a while. The lambs look doll-like with spindly legs that appear too tiny to possibly support them, but they stand there, shaky and wobbly. The mothers bellow and chase after me as I pick up the lambs to carry them to the barn. The rest of the sheep are already in the barn. The newborns didn't know how to get to the barn and the mothers would not desert them. I will have to put these in a pen so they don't get trampled by the others if the storm comes back. They will be fine for now.
I still need to check the bridge. Some limbs are on it where the creek deposited its cargo. The water has gone down some. I will walk out and kick the limbs off the bridge to be carried farther along. This bridge is the only way to get to the back of the pasture without driving eight miles around gravel roads to get to the back. I'm tired. I wonder what new surprises this storm will bring. If the weather is nice in the morning, Josh and I are going fishing like I promised.
Abe & the Stranger
Allen W. Snider
They show him no respect, but why should they show any respect. He is a stranger. They stumble over rocks as they take turns carrying him by his legs and arms, scraping his back on the dirt and gravel the half mile to where the ambulance is supposed to come. He won't mind, of course. He is dead and recently so. He will not complain. He washed up, only God knows how, on the banks of Powtahok Creek, a little rivulet a mile and a half from the nearest road. The Creek winds for about seventeen miles through the northwestern corner of the state to drain its muddy waters into the Mississippi. During the rainy season the Creek gets nearly a half mile wide and it washes up all sorts of things – tires, bottles, and even the occasional piece of lawn furniture. But today, the Creek has delivered the body of a man. A ten-year-old boy found it while fishing with his Dad.
Abe was born and grew up near Sashcam (pronounced "saysh'com)" in northern Arkansas, down the River from Memphis. When you said "the River," there was no question you were talking about the Mississippi. Everything else was "creek" or "canal." When people thought the Mississippi was tamed, the great muddy beast would rise from its banks and assault people's lives a foot and a yard at a time until its ravenous appetite was sated. Then it would retreat back into its muddy den but never gently or quietly, always pushing and waiting there. Most farmers in that part of the Delta lost many night's sleep, wondering what that seductive monster would do next. Abe understood this and respected the River. He loved its mystery and its unpredictable power. His Dad took him to the River before he could remember. When he was older they threw rocks into its muddy waters, sometimes competing for the most skips across the surface, sometimes throwing as far as they could throw with no chance of one of their rocks striking the other bank. When he was ten, Abe began walking the four miles to the River and sitting on its banks until the pastel hues of evening stained the creamed coffee waters that flowed a mile wide with its swirling currents building energy all the way to the Gulf. He and his pals would fish in the river, hanging liver from a hook on the end of a cane pole and reaching out as far as the muddy banks would allow. Sometimes they tied a rope, one end around their waist and the other to a sapling or tree. People had died, falling in the River.
Abe was Abraham Isaac Wesley, named after two Bible characters with no deliberate reference to any former President. His father, Richard "Coot" Wesley, had grown up in Mississippi. Abe's grandparents had moved there from Georgia after the Civil War. They raised cotton and soybeans. Elizabeth "Liz" Davis Wesley, God rest her soul, had been a religious person. Not long after the wedding, Coot and Liz moved to eastern Arkansas and bought a piece of land there, still farming in the Mississippi Delta. Liz tried to get her husband to church and he attended as long as she did. She tried hard to get his soul saved. He was as good a man as man can be but she was afraid he was destined for the eternal fires unless she could get him baptized. When Abe was ten, Liz died after delivering a stillborn, second child. Old Doc Wilson could not stop the bleeding. When she breathed her last, Doc pulled a brown bottle out of his case with a piece of masking tape over the label marked "for emergencies only" and offered Coot a share. Coot and Doc sat on the front porch of the house, pondering the mysteries of life until their heads spun from the depths of such profundity and the strong medicine they shared that night. Liz's funeral was at the First Methodist Episcopal Church South in Oxford, Mississippi and she was buried near Paris where her parents were buried. The preacher knew the family. Abe's grandparents, some aunts, uncles and cousins were all there. When the preacher mentioned how hard Liz's life had been, but now she would get the peace and rest she needed, Abe's chest and throat hurt. Abe's Aunt Jenny wailed before and during the funeral, but she stood around afterward at the cemetery, talking and laughing. Abe was frightened and confused, but no one tried to explain. Coot just held him in a lingering hug.
Sascham is just a community these days, not even on most maps, but for a few years in the 1800s it had been a bustling little stop-off for riverboats. Even the Belle of St. Louis had once stopped at Sascham to pick up passengers and leave some. That was before the flood of 1852. Now the stores are all gone. The livery stable that had been so important in the 1800s and early 1900s was long since gone. Bernie Miller built a general store in 1872, but anti-Semitism, the Great Depression, and World War II left it vacant until it fell to the ground. The feed store is still there, selling sweet feed, grain, seed, animal medications, fertilizer, and parts to repair farm implements. Only a scattering of houses is left on a ridge overlooking the Mississippi River bottoms. People of Sascham are proud of their heritage and simple history. They are a gutsy people, willing to wrestle with God and nature in order to eke out a life for their families. Their families have done so for generations.
Grandma and Grandpa Davis invited the boy to stay with them in Mississippi. Coot said he would take care of Abe, insisting that he could cook and teach the boy about life. The boy would stay in school. They headed back across the ferry at Helena and back to their farm in Arkansas. Most people said Coot had done as good a job at parenting alone as any farm couple. The boy and his Dad were close. Coot took him to church on Christmas and Easter, but he stayed angry at God the rest of the year for taking Liz away. Coot drank himself to death on the night of Abe's high school graduation, which was also the anniversary of Liz's death. Abe threw rocks into the River.
The man is about thirty-five. He is wearing only some cotton briefs and an undershirt. The early winter water is cold enough that the turtles are not active. Thank goodness! I remember reading something about a missing man in the newspaper. I'll run a check when I get to the office.
Abe and his Dad had farmed the river bottoms – some of the richest farm land in the country, but some of the riskiest as well. Most years the River would not rise enough to flood the farm, but the threat was always there, the great menacing giant that it was. River folks knew that it would do what it could when it would, no matter what they did to prevent it. Abe's Dad knew the risk. Not far away the River briefly covered the earth for miles along the delta every few years in the Springtime–just long enough to make farming impossible so the land lay muddy and nearly fallow with farmers planting gardens late in the mud.
Sometimes Abe still fished in the River. The catfish had a strong muddy taste unless he put them in the freshwater stock tank to swim in for a day. They tasted better, but the River had left its mark and no matter how diluted, the muddy taste could not be completely purged. His Dad said the River muddies everything it touches and you can't ever get the mud out.
Coot wanted his son to go to college, but Abe joined the Navy when he turned eighteen because he liked being around water and boats. The Navy had big ones and they taught him to be a diesel mechanic. He joined a month after the Bay of Pigs. Nearly assigned to the destroyer, USS Hubbard when the chief mechanic broke his arm, he ended up instead on the aircraft carrier USS Sutpen, mostly delivering supplies to soldiers in Vietnam. When he returned to Arkansas, he got a job on the River, working on barges, and even learning to pilot a towboat. Abe knew the River better than many. People who knew him said he had a natural feel for the River, as though he and the River were indelibly connected.
Abe tried living in Memphis for a while. He worked as a cook in a small diner across from Baptist Hospital, flipping burgers when he wasn't serving bacon and eggs. He even fell in love with a waitress at the diner. She was blonde and older than Abe. She had a two-year-old son. Her husband had been killed in Vietnam. They went to the movies, ate hamburgers at the diner when someone else was cooking, and slept at her house on weekends. Abe really liked being around Susan, but something was missing that he couldn't quite put his finger on until he stood by the canons overlooking the River. The River beckoned to him. She was his mistress, so he quit the diner and went back to the River without an explanation, without any good-byes, and with only a little ache in his chest when he thought about Susan and little Jimmy.
After a couple of months, Abe started drinking when he wasn't working. If he had a week off, he would drink four days and dry up for three. It took that long to sober enough to work, loading boats, working on the diesel engines, doing what work he could find. A Russian defector who worked on river barges had introduced him to Vodka. He mixed it with Orange juice, with Apple juice, with whatever he could find, and when he found nothing, he drank it straight. This went on until they found his best friend dead in the bathtub, surrounded by a pool of blood. He had fallen and broken his skull in a drunken stupor. He went back to the farm.
The old house needed repairs but was still sound. The barn needed work. The fences were all broken from the currents the River threw up. Abe had saved some money and the college money Coot had saved was still in the bank. He bought a 1956 Ford tractor and went to work on the place. The house roof was dry so the farm had to be readied first. The season was late winter so he had time to plant crops. Plowing, repairing, thinking, and remembering all took his time. He occasionally visited the church Liz attended and made friends there. They were willing to help, but they had their own farms to tend. Neighbors did turn out to visit from time to time, sometimes with some chicken or a pie in hand. Abe was grateful. As the soybeans got planted and the farm started taking shape, he was not working such long hours and started to feel a little lonely. He thought about Susan and the boy, but imagined she had already married a good man. When he had time, he might go to Memphis and check to see she was ok.
His first year back on the farm was a good year for farming. Prices were up and he had a bumper crop of cotton and soybeans. His garden did well too. He had repaired the smoke house, bought some chickens and built a strong pen to protect them. He had bought a cow and a couple of pigs. He was already collecting eggs and getting milk. As hard as it was, Abe wanted someone to share his life. He left Jerry, one of his church friends, overseeing things at the farm and headed to Memphis, taking backroads because he never liked the main highways and the way people drove.
The city was different from the way he remembered – bigger, faster. Eventually, he managed to find his way to the little diner, parked around the corner, and paced a while before heading for the door. With his head down he walked in, looking around for Susan and not finding her face among those behind the counter. He ordered a hamburger and started talking to the waitress. “A woman named Susan used to work here. Do you know here?”
“No. There isn’t a Susan working here now. Let me ask Bernie.”
A few minutes later Bernie came out of the kitchen and asked, “Who are you?”
“My name is Abe.”
“Abe? I remember you. You worked here when I was just a teenager. My Dad ran the place then. You used to make me special hamburgers, shaped like horses and cows and such. Susan worked here then. She left after you did. I heard she went to work in the hospital kitchen. You might check there.”
Abe’s heart picked up the pace. Nervous and excited, he crossed the busy street at a trot, went up the escalator and started looking for signs indicating the cafeteria and kitchen.
Finally. We got the guy’s body loaded into the ambulance. They’ll have a mess to clean up after they take him to the morgue. There is something familiar about the guy’s face. Maybe it means nothing.
Abe enters the hospital cafeteria and nervously looks around. There, behind the service counter is Susan. Fortunately, it is lunch time and he has an excuse to talk to her.
“I’ll have some of that meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy, some green beans, and a roll, please.” She turns to see him and gasps briefly.
“Yeah. I’d like to see you and talk to you, if it is not a problem.”
“You just left without a "goodbye" or anything.. I didn’t know where you were. A lot of things have changed.”
“For me too. I had some things to work out. I think I have worked most of them out now, but I think I need to talk with you.”
“I get a break at 3:00. We can talk here, but I only get 15 minutes. Then we start getting dinner ready to serve at 5:00.”
“Sure. Can I get that meatloaf then or do I have to get it now?”
“We stop serving lunch at 2:00.”
“OK. I’ll have it now and just look at you from the cafeteria while I eat it.”
Abe takes his tray, pays the cashier, and sits at a table where he has a view of the service counters. Susan looks tired. Abe gets an ache in his chest, feeling guilty about just disappearing like he did with no word. He chews slowly. The food is surprisingly good. The meatloaf doesn’t even need ketchup.
I follow the ambulance to the county morgue. The . . .
Allen W. Snider
“Hello, Mildred. I am Harry Fisher, the pastor of Grace Methodist Church.”
“I have heard a lot about you. Do you know my sister, Fran?”
“Yes. I know Fran. She was in church Sunday.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you. Your name is Fisher. There are some Fishers that live down the street from me, but I don’t think are related to you.”
“No. I don’t believe I know them. Frankie asked me to pray for you. She was sick and we were praying for her. I called her on the phone a couple of weeks ago and she said she was better, but that she wanted us to pray for you, so you have been on my prayer list.”
“I got a card from you, saying that you were praying for me. Do you know Frankie?”
“I sure do.”
"I’ve heard a lot about you. There are some Fishers that live down the street from me, but I don’t think they are related to you.”
“No. I don’t think I know them.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Harry Fisher, the pastor of Grace Methodist Church where you belong.”
“Oh. Yeah. I go to Grace Methodist Church when I can go. I am getting better. I will be coming back to church soon. Do you know Frankie?”
“Could I pray with you?”
“Who are you?”
© 1992 Allen W. Snider
Published first in Suspension: Fiction, Poetry, Essays 1992. Austin College, Sherman, Texas 75091
A wise man once said that we observe birth and death in the wrong ways. When a child is born, that child comes into a world of uncertainty. We do not know the degree of suffering and pain that will mark that life, but we know that pain and suffering certainly come to each and every life. We should mourn for that infant. But when a person has reached the end of their life, if that life has been a good one, then there should be rejoicing and celebration at the remembrance of that goodness and the passing of that person into a better existence where pain and sorrow are taken away. Yet we mourn.
Friday the 8th
Bones stretch the skin to frame his empty form. Age and disease have demanded their toll. Charlie curls into a fetal position and lies quietly on his side in the hospital bed. His hand quivers as he lowers it onto the sheet and then jerks it away as though burned. The hand then drifts slowly down to touch the sheet again, this time finding the sensation acceptable. His deep brown eyes glisten as they reflect the dim bedside light of the hospital room. He seems to silently plea for something more as his brow wrinkles toward the center of his forehead. The nurses do not address him as they dutifully attend him: they speak only to the visitors who sit in constant vigil.
Harry was here before, but Charlie's wife, Ruth, was not here then. Some friends had explained that Ruth had gone home to rest. They had described the nearly comatose person lying on the bed, introducing the Charlie they knew by telling his story. “Charlie used to restore antiques, especially antique organs, and he restored a piano once." He could take a broken, old piece of junk and make it into a work of beauty. Charlie was the good neighbor who “would give you anything he had if you really needed it more than he did.”
As Harry returns on this winter morning, he finds an elderly, large-framed woman trying to nap In a chair at the foot of Charlie's bed. She has a small blanket pulled over her arms and her legs, and her feet are extended and resting in a smaller chair --the only other chair in the room.
“Are you Ruth?” he asks.
“Yes," comes a puzzled reply.
“I'm Harry Fisher. Some friends asked me to come to see you and Charlie.”
"Yes, W.A. said you'd be by. Sit down, Preacher. I'll move my feet." He begins. “How is Charlie doing?"
“He’s not doing well, Preacher. He's been sick a long time."
"I came by Monday, but you weren't here."
“I went home. It was the first time?” She looks down. "I had been here two weeks --since they brought Charlie here-- and this chair started to hurt my back pretty bad. They told me I could steep in it, but just couldn't do it any more."
Charlie gurgles and struggles to turn. Ruth stands, moves to his side and helps him to turn on his back. His legs, still trying to cud in a fetal position, lift the sheet. He finally relaxes and they drop slowly until his heels rest on the mattress against his buttocks. His knees still hold the sheet aloft. Ruth pats his hand gently and adjusts the sheet. Then she moves back to the large chair at the foot of Charlie's bed near where Harry is seated.
“He isn't strong and needs help to turn over," she whispers. "'He can't stay in one spot too long. He bruises so easy."'
They silently watch Charlie's chest rise and fall with a hissing sound for lingering moments until his breathing softens and he seems at ease. The fingers of one hand are curled around his thumb in a loose fist. For a moment he extends the fingers and then draws them back. His arm quivers and then swings, his hand pounding at some task real only to him. Then he relaxes and quietly snores.
"I hear you are an artist?" Harry asks.
“Yes. I taught art in the schools for twenty-two years. I just kind of piddle with it a little these days. Charlie got sick six years ago and I had to take care of him. He didn't want me to leave him, so I stayed with him. I would paint and he would tell me what was wrong so I could straighten it out. This past year Charlie couldn't move without help, so I moved a bed into the den where he could watch me paint.”
“I paint on just nearly anything. W.A. brought me some old boards. I paint on whatever I can get. I can fix old frames. Charlie used to fix antique organs and we have a captain's chair that someone was going to throw away and Charlie said he wanted that chair. He fixed it like new. Charlie built him a shop after he retired from the mill, so he could work at home. We never belonged to any church, but we went to your church when we did go.”
Charlie sighs deeply. Harry walks to his bedside and searches his face for some comprehension of what is happening. His brown eyes seem to look into Harry and beyond.
Ruth speaks to him. "Charlie, this is a friend of W.A.'s."
“Would you like for me to pray with you?” Harry asks her.
“No.” she hastens. “He'll hear you. He can hear everything you say, and I don't want to upset him."
Clumsily Harry returns to the chair and holds Ruth's hand as she whispers, "We had an estate sale last year. It was Willie's idea. Willie is Charlie's brother. We raised over ten thousand dollars to pay for Charlie's bills. We bought a hospital bed and put it in the living room. I live next door to W.A., around the corner from the church. Most of what we sold was his tools. He couldn't use them any more and Charlie said it would be all right. He has only been like this for about a month. We raised over ten thousand dollars. I don't want to upset him, Preacher."
"'I understand. I must leave now, but if there is anything I can do for you, please call me at the church."
"'OK, Preacher. Thanks for coming by."'
Harry walks down the hall, stops at the elevator near the nurses’ station, and pushes the "down" button on the wall. Moments later the doors open. He steps onto the empty elevator and waits for the doors to close. As the elevator begins its descent he pleads, “God, help me to know what to do."
Monday the 11th
Sunday had been a cheerless day for Harry. The sun was shining, making the day more like the debut of spring instead of simply another dreary, December day. But his wife, Carol, had slept as he delivered his sermon on "Truth." Harry had used an illustration about a little boy's trust that had been broken when a man filed bankruptcy. Harry's friend, Louis, was a farmer who had filed bankruptcy in the early eighties. He had left church before the final hymn. At the request of Louie's wife, Pam, Harry spent Sunday afternoon unsuccessfully searching for his friend. Carol wasn't at home when he returned. He felt her slip into bed early the next morning.
But today Harry is with Ruth and Charlie.
"You know, preacher," she whispers, squeezing Harry's hand, '”I don't know what I'll do when Charlie's gone. I would paint and he would be there. It has been six years. Charlie has been sick six years and he couldn't get out. He would tell me what to do on my painting. What will I do when Charlie is gone? Can you tell me, Preacher?"
"You'll keep on living and painting."
"What will I do, Preacher?"
"It's good that you can paint."
"But Charlie won't be there to tell me what I should do."
"You'll do well."
"Well, I suppose I'll have to. But it won't be easy. I used to want to go to church. I couldn't leave him."
"No, you couldn't."
"Preacher, thank you for coming by. It means a lot to me."
"I have to go now, but I'll be back."
"I know how busy you are, Preacher. Thank you for coming by."
"Is there anything I can get you or do for you?"
"No. I don't reckon there is, Preacher. Thank you."
"Good-bye," he says as he moves toward the door, the elevator near the nurses’ station, and the sunny winter day outside. “Lord, give Ruth the peace she needs. And Louie. And me.”
Wednesday the 13th
Two days have passed since Harry last saw Ruth. Harry had talked with Ruth's niece at the hospital the previous night as the intern and nurses packed Charlie in ice, trying to stop the fever. Driving to the hospital this morning, Harry learns that Charlie died during the night so he quickly drives to Ruth's house and knocks. Ruth answers the door and guides the preacher into the den. As he enters the room, he notices Charlie's sister seated on the couch.
"How are you doing?" he asks, turning to Ruth.
“Not so good, Preacher. I just don't know what I will do now that Charlie is gone. Have you met Charlie's sister, Faye?”
"Yes. She was at the hospital one day when I visited. Hello."
"Have a seat, Preacher."
Harry chooses a chair near the center of the room, facing the largest wall and the couch, and begins surveying the room.
"Charlie restored that chair you are sitting in and that one over there.”
Wondrous paintings in ornate frames adorn the walls. Paintings of roses and daisies and irises and tulips surround Harry. A hospital bed is in one corner of the room and chairs circle the center of the room. Harry marvels at a large painting of a child playing a violin with a bearded man standing watch. A stand holds a pair of folded, wire-rimmed glasses lying near a book. A vase of daisies stands behind the child.
Faye says, "Ruth painted every one of these and a lot more. I have a large one of tulips that I bought at the estate sale."
Harry asks about the violin painting.
“I worked on that one for a long time. I just couldn't seem to get it right. The glasses were the hardest part. Charlie would tell me whether it was right or not.”
"Could you tell me more about Charlie? Something I might mention tomorrow?”
"Charlie worked with wood and restored antique pianos and organs. He had a shop behind the house. You can see it out the kitchen window. He built that other shop for me and my paintings."
"Charlie liked your paintings. Which were his favorites?"
"Charlie liked white roses. He said the rose in that little painting near the kitchen door reminded him of a rose his mother had put in the kitchen window when he was just a boy."
"Can you tell me about the mill where he worked?"
"No. He just worked there until he retired.”
"Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"Charlie drove a fuel truck in Europe during World War II; he carried fuel for tanks. He said that a plane flew over shooting at the convoy once and he hid under his truck. He said another man was running along and jumped under the truck with him. The other man sniffed, said, 'this is a gasoline truck. I'd rather be out In the open, and left.’”
Two women enter the room and begin to talk with Ruth and Faye, asking about funeral details.
"Have you met Charlie's nieces?"
"Yes. I met Jan in the hospital last night. I have to go now. Is there anything special you want me to do?”
"No, Preacher. Just make it a short funeral. I don't want it to last too long. There will just be one song. Just do what you think is right.”
"I'll see you tomorrow. If there is anything I can do, please call me. I am lust around the corner."
As Harry leaves, the women are making small talk, Ruth rocking in her chair at the foot of the hospital bed and knitting.
Friday the 15th
The funeral goes well --short and meaningful as Ruth has requested, and the warm sun lingers just long enough. Harry goes home after the funeral and finds a note on the table from Carol, saying she'll be late. He eats a sandwich and leaves to try to visit with Louis. Pam told Harry at the funeral that Louie had come home during the night. Unable to find Louie, Harry visits another parishioner in the hospital who is to have his leg amputated tomorrow. As Harry leaves the hospital, he is challenged by gusty winds and light rains as the winter storm moves from the north. He chooses to return home through the country, deciding it is short and solitary.
Like a weight on his chest, the winter storm sets in. Harry braces himself as he misjudges a curve and skids the Dodge across wet grass into the rail fence. The car is jolted still. His short breaths make him momentarily dizzy until he relaxes and breathes more deeply. Bits of safety glass lie in his lap, and the end of a fence post juts through the windshield, inches from his face. He slowly opens the door, steps into the rain, and takes his handkerchief from his back pocket to rake the glass from the seat.
Moments later a flashing red light approaches. A nearby resident, curious and afraid to confront the stranger who just ran through their fence, has called the DPS. The flashing car pulls off the road and onto the shoulder in front of Harry's wounded car. A voice commands, "Come here; get inside." Harry walks toward the bright headlights and gets into the passenger's side of the flashing car. A familiar voice demands, "Let me see your driver’s license." Harry gets his license from his wallet and hands it to the officer as his eyes adjust. Moments pass and Harry wonders whether the officer remembers him. Their wives work for the same firm and the two couples had eaten dinner together some months past.
"Harry, I'm sorry to have to write you a ticket, but I've called this one in and my sergeant is strict for details. Looks to me that the damage to your car should be penalty enough, especially considering what the insurance deductible is nowadays.”
"'Tell me, Harry, do you know anything about electric trains?”
"I haven't done much with them since I was a boy."
"OK. Thanks. Sign here. It's just to say that you were explained your rights. It doesn't mean that you agree with the details of the accident as reported here. You can call the number on the ticket and they will tell you how much the ticket will be, or you can schedule a hearing before a judge."'
Harry nods and signs the paper.
"See you. Tell Carol ‘hi’ for me."'
Harry folds the ticket and stuffs it In his wallet along with his driver’s license. The officer’s car sits patiently, spotlighting the damage as Harry walks back to his car. He removes the post from the windshield, gets inside to start the car, and eagerly drives the remainder of the twenty miles home with the icy wind blowing in his face and one of his headlights shining upward into the night sky.
Harry looks forward to a quiet time with Carol, his wife. He is eager for a quiet weekend --just the two of them. Maybe they can go for a drive, visit a museum or see a movie.
He cautiously pulls into the inclined drive, then stops the car and gets out to open the garage door. He parks the car and removes a few more bits of glass from his crotch as he closes the garage door and walks across the uncovered patio to the house. The lights are out and the door is locked. He fumbles briefly with his keys as the rain soaks through his clothes. "Partly cloudy and warm" the weather man said the night before. Harry had forgotten to put the umbrella back in the car the last time it rained.
He finally manages to open the door, and he steps into the kitchen, and flicks on the light. Another note on the table affronts his hopes: I'll be home later. Carol."
"That’s how we communicate a lot these days --with notes on the table," he mumbles to himself. "We used to talk a lot more.11 The clock chimes the half hour: six-thirty
Harry walks into the den, puts on an old Zeppelin tape, and turns fl loud.' “You need a whole lotta love. He takes a rib steak out of the freezer, pops it into the broiler, and sets the temperature on broil and the timer on 15 minutes. He kicks the wet shoes into the closet, peels off the wet clothes, and grabs a towel from the bathroom as he walks into the bedroom for his bathrobe and some dry boxer shorts. Then he walks back Into the den to turn on the TV and watch Peter Jennings pantomime the music. He fixes a strong, tall glass of Chivas and water on ice. He started drinking about a year ago, when he and Carol began communicating with notes on the table. The liquor store clerk had asked him last month if he ever considered buying his Chivas by the half gallon. "It will save you some driving,” he'd said as he pointed to Harry's out-of-state license plates facing the front window.
The first smoky bitter taste curls the corners of his lips. Harry sips the tonic and fixes another. The buzzer on the oven says dinner is ready. He takes a fork from the drawer by the sink and moves the steak from the broiler pan to his plate. Taking the Heinz 57 from the cabinet, he smothers the steak. Harry locates a steak knife from the drawer and turns off the oven. Then he gulps down the Chivas and fixes a glass of milk to drink with the steak.
He changes tapes and sits in the den floor to watch the silent figures on the screen as they seem to lip sync the pounding rhythms of the music. He pushes the buttons on the remote. The music hammers on. Harry methodically lays the knife and fork beside the couch, raises the steak to his lips with his fingers, and tears at it with his teeth. The juices drip down his chin. He rinses his throat. His head bobs from side to side as the music draws him into its rhythm. He rips at the meat, filling his mouth with tangy bits. Staggering to his feet, he gulps down the white liquid and refills the glass with his last ounces of Chivas and three pieces of ice, mumbling “Father. Son, and Holy Ghost." He staggers to the kitchen, carrying his empty plate, and puts it in the sink. He wipes his chin with his sleeve.
Wandering into the bathroom, he washes his face and towels it dry before swaggering into the bedroom to fall onto the bed. He lies there long enough to doze, but awakens after brief moments from an annoying tingle in his legs and lifts his legs onto the bed. He slumbers again.
Saturday the 16th
When he awakens, Harry notices the clock on the dresser--12:30. He raises his head and looks around, pushing up from the bed. As he staggers through the house, he realizes that Carol is still not home. The ache in his gut and chest grows. "Where are you, Carol?"
Taking the pen and pad on the kitchen table, he writes a note–“Gone fishing"--and leaves it beside the note he found earlier. He returns to the bedroom, puts on some warm clothes, and grabs his raincoat as he moves back out into the weather toward the garage. Inside the garage, he locates his favorite fishing gear and packs it methodically into the old VW--his fishing car. Opening the door, he takes his place behind the wheel and starts the motor. Harry glances toward the Dodge as he backs into the street. He'd squeal the tires if he could. Seven blocks and a right turn take him to the highway. Miles later, he turns down the hill toward the river and the road that parallels it. He searches for a place where he'll not be bothered. He stops the car and lies across the front seats of the VW to lightly doze, momentarily thinking he'd rather be at home with Carol.
Harry's short nap is broken by a tingling in his legs, which have gone to sleep. Getting out of the car, he walks toward the water. He has grown to love fishing in these past months. It's challenge, away from doubts and an empty house, has drawn him here tonight. He walks toward the water, stops to push his right shoe off and then his left. He slips off his shirt and pants, and wades into the icy water. At first it chills his body, but he begins to feel warm as the icy water numbs his legs. He moves deeper, breathing in shallow bursts as the chill climbs his body. He inches into the water until his stomach and chest grow warm. Harry has baptized tearful adults and children, wanting to be forgiven. He lowers his head into the icy water and relaxes. The currents gently draw him into darkness. Harry lifts his head to draw a deep breath, and fights the doubts and anxiety that rise in his thoughts. His lungs swell with the pressure. He exhales gently, then breathes deeply from the peace of the darkness.
Hours later the sun unveils the sky and climbs from the horizon to warm the ground. Crows challenge a hawk for dead bits on the highway. Brown leaves are scattered among barren trees. A squirrel races across the highway and loses. A little boy is up early on Saturday morning, throwing rocks into the river. He will climb back up the hill to his home to get ready for the fishing that his dad has promised.