There’s something that must be made clear from the beginning, which is that I’m only talking about myself, and my own special circumstances; there’s nothing to generalize here. I well understand we’re all different, after our own fashion. However, since recently reading through Theophrastus and his characters, I’m not as sure as I once was. But putting all that to the side, I’ll start in by saying I’m generous and community-minded. My practice is to go out visiting every Wednesday. In fact, I’m pretty much required to. But that’s a story for another day.
It’s Carla one week, Victoria another, then maybe Malcolm. Sometimes Melissa. I make the stops as regular as I can. And report them on the forms provided. Have to. And I live alone in a small house atop a spine of hard yellow loam in Mississippi. Those two items alone say more of me than would four pages of ornate prose. So I visit around, trying to keep up, and trying to keep out of sight of authority and surveillars.
Last Wednesday Melissa was up. Her husband George met me at the door and said, Hey, Raphael. No, sorry, she’s not in. Flat, straight out. Just like that. I knew he was lying, or prevaricating, or equivocating, covering for her. He loves his Melissa. But I knew that what he was really saying was ‘she is not in her right mind.’ Melissa is bad on psychedelics; so I understand where George is coming from. Consequently, no visit that day for Melissa. She’ll get through it though, she always does.
Next up was Malcolm. He was in. That was a near certainty. As he always is. If no one else, I can count on Malcolm. All of his groceries are delivered by one of those ‘you-don’t-have-to-do-nothing services’; his mail is brought up from the box by the little drug-addict girl next door doing ”community service.” Malcolm’s probably not started his truck in six months. One of the neighbors picks him up for church whenever he agrees to go.
I knock on the door the way I always do, two quick and one following. Almost immediately, from off in the back of his aluminum tube I hear the recliner crack into upright and then that followed hard on by the sand-whispering of his slippers across the floor that hasn’t been swept in six months since I last did it. He gets there and stops for a moment. I can hear him breathing in his deep COPD, wondering if somebody really knocked. Or they might just go away if he waited. I wait. And he waits. Sometimes he’ll go first with, who’s there? Sometimes it’s me first with, Malcolm, you home? He always is. I think he’d be a great 911 dispatcher, always on the qui vive. But that will never happen, given his history, his record. What’s up, Malcolm? It’s me, Raphael. Finally, he lets me in with unfastening of three deadbolts and two slide latches and a heavy security chain.
All he does much anymore is sit in his chair and fidget with the TV remote and read his Bible and a bunch of erotico-romantic novels. He has a stack of them beside his chair — «Captain Come On», «Persian Seduction», «Warrior-Beast.» He watches his share of TV, but for the most part it’s always seemingly on mute, at least when I’m there. I say ‘seemingly’, because if one listens closely the tinny burble of voices that leaks like smokey poison from the wired earplugs he has draped across a hook in the side of his reading table lets you know it’s on to one of the conspiracy channels — NPR, FNN, ABC, CNN — things like that. If there is anything at all that interests Malcolm it’s current events.
He offers me the usual chair and we get settled in and it doesn’t take long for him to offer me a beer and a smoke, both of which I readily accept, even if it is before noon.
He starts in unprompted as if we’d just left off discussing it: You know, Raphael, as I was saying, for years I’ve provided sport for many people. They make fun of me and my gullibility. One smart acquaintance of mine, Donald Ray, spelled it out for me sitting here one night over way too many beers. It’s your goddam ignorance, he said, raising his hands like a remonstrative preacher. Not stupidity, but ignorance.
Ah well, I said to him, everybody needs something to hold on to. Right or wrong, I’ve got mine. So, after a while, the ridicule stopped having its intended effect. I take what I believe and move ahead, not worrying about snide remarks and raised eyebrows. The way it works for me now is this, and I’ll be the first to admit it could change without any warning, but now, I don’t take a single step, not a word issues from my mouth, but I don’t try to find out what Jesus would want me to do. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know about me.
I signal yes and encourage him to go on. He slants his chair back so he can look up at the ceiling, discolored with fried foods and tobacco smoke, and goes on with his story and becomes reflective for a few moments and sighs.
Then he says, I’ve heard my minister say, Raphael, on many occasions that there’s not much difference between the words somebody speaks and the actions they take. His reasoning is that the retribution for either one, when done wrong, will be just the same, and that what really counts is what one thinks in one’s heart. Once that goes, that realization, then everything is lost and you’re well set out along the road to hell.
I say, yes I get it. I know, I’ve been there myself and clack my beer bottle affirmatively on the glass tabletop smeared with enough jelly and other foodstuffs to pull him through at least two meals. One could row pole beans up in what is composting on that tabletop.
He continues, smiling of course that we are in accord and then says, it would mark me out as a fool not to admit that I’m not exactly sure about a good number of those fine code-libets my minister delivers from the pulpit; but even with those doubts, I can still go on referring to him as reverend-doctor; a little respect, even if unmerited, never hurt anybody. He knows things I don’t. That’s what he’s paid for. Another thing he says that comes back to me now, is that very often you’ll find people on both sides of any given issue, a response he says that comes from a system called sexular relativism, which, as best I understand it, involves family incest and the fact that whether something is right or wrong depends on what country you come from. There are some French river-people who consider it a point of honor for the fathers to introduce their daughters to the hard world, in a shielded fashion, if you get my drift. All of which does not, however, mean that both sides are equally right, he’s quick to add. There’s a razor-sharp and sun-bright difference between relativism and tolerance. But then, who knows, anyway? The most important thing is to remember what’s most important. That’s the beginning and end of being good — living right, going home to Jesus, he says. Keep that uppermost — the suffering of the sweet Lord Jesus and how the Father God’s giving us his only Son’s generous death and sweet resurrection is what washed us all clean. That being kept uppermost in the mind, everything else falls into place, he mentions continuously in his sermons.
Now then, to say, as I did earlier, that I ask Jesus what he’d have me do or utter, is not the same as to say that I always get an answer. Of course not. But the thing is this, I strive towards it, and that’s what counts; it’s what you intend, and not so much what you accomplish; what your attitude is, or has been, so to speak, that is going to be the primary concern for Him that conducts the final purge and sorting out — goats on the left, sheep on the right — as I’ve heard it put. But then anybody with half sense knows all that. In fact, to be perfectly honest about it, and I hope, of course, this doesn’t reflect on the likelihood of my coming to be set at the Lord’s right hand with the sheep, but better than half the time there’s no answer at all comes to my efforts to commune with the highest power in this world or out of it that there is. It goes without saying that I’d never tell this to my minister. And anyway, we don’t have to make confession the way those whorish papists do. No, our Rising Sun communion is of a more serene and private sort.
But back to prayer. That truly is a mysterious thing, especially in the privacy of your own closet, unlike the way of the Jewish Pharisees, those sons of the devil, and others who make a public display of their sanctity, but especially the Jews, they were warned against doing it at Leviticus 18:22, I think Rev. Edwards quotes from that part of Scripture. And that’s as it should be, no doubt. Otherwise, there’d be some question of my sanity, I’d be the first to admit, I mean if an answer came every time I reached out imploring the help of the Lord. This is not to suggest that when I don’t get an answer, he’s not listening, so much as it is that probably I’m not paying close enough attention. On the right wavelength, for instance. Or just distractive. Who knows really?
But what I’m trying to get at is this: there is, I must admit, a great burden of care on my mind these days, given what happened with father and all.
I can see that Malcolm is getting to his thesis now, and so I say, yes, Malcolm, tell me about that. Last time I was in for a visit you were getting started about the problems you’d had with your father, but we ran out of time. What happened to him?
He says I suspect that a lot of my spiritual shortcoming has to do with the plain old sheer quantity of concentration. And that’s where the crossover with Zen Buddhism comes in that’s so confusing for a thinking Christian like me.
Then I think, well maybe we’ll not get to it this time either, and look at my watch.
Malcolm says, which, no doubt, probably strikes a jarring note — to hear me, a relatively unlearned country person, talking about exotic religions. But I’ve read and thought more than might be evident or most people think. He reaches for a cigarette and is quiet while he lights it up, takes a long draw and blows it up in a volcano spume toward the nicotine-yellow ceiling. Then he looks back at me and motions toward the stack of soft-bound pornography to his left. Even so, with my probably excessive reading, I still don’t know much at all about it, Zen Buddhism, but I do have this friend, Donald Ray, who I mentioned earlier, and who I go shooting with on occasion, and he’s pretty much an expert on it, or at least he talks a lot about it. And out of respect to him, I often take the time to hear him out carefully, and one time I even agreed with him that there might be some connections between the two faiths. And that’s exactly where he corrected me and said, “How many times I got to tell you, Malcolm, there is no such thing as faith in Buddhism, only the concentration, or non-concentration, I was talking about. Are you not listening? Watch, he said, and then leaned his cheek down against the rifle stock and got off a pretty good pattern, and then looked back up at me and smiled and said with a grin, that’s what I’m talking about — concentration. That’s all. You just gotta let that faith bullshit go.”
But the whole topic remains pretty much murky with me. He makes good points from time to time, but he never has shaken my faith, and never will. I’m almost sure of that. And even if he is in error, none of it seems to affect his accuracy as a marksman, so most of the time we just let it slide, while I keep wondering if he’s really on to something.
Be all that as it may, not too many months ago, I passed through an immensely trying and curious epoch in my spiritual life that I’ve been wanting to share with you for some time. And I’ll just set it out clearly and simply as I can. It wasn’t a grand revelation or anything like that. I wish it had been, I suppose, like the night I found Jesus with Miss Sugarpie who’d asked me over to St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist, the colored church just down the road. While I’m not too high on negroes, I do feel one should make an effort to attend economical, cross-religious gatherings when it’s possible. But, no, my most recent encounter, the one I’m talking about now, wasn’t that good, but instead was just a mild, what might be termed, protracted sort of epiphany, I think they call it. Not a Pentecost-like vision and some extra-terrestrial appearance of supernatural things at all. Not that. And really, one way you look at it, there might be very little that the objective and casual observer, if that’s not a contradiction in itself, could even find that’s useful in it, in terms of the revelation that it brought me. Because it was not as if I’d been out in the world struggling in that great arena of wills with the spit and snot and blood of commerce pooling in the sand the way they still do here in some quarters of my beloved Mississippi. No. Beyond a doubt, not. I was sitting right here in this blue corduroy-covered recliner my sister gave me when she moved out of town for the last time, thinking about my father and that whore he took up with some time back. Now then, to put it as simple as possible — they drank up, both of them, my patrimony. Such as it was. This is why I’m sitting in a worn-out blue recliner in a ramshackle metal mobile home, instead of that clapboard house we all grew up in as kids or a nice place in the subdivision in town where my other sister lives. But that’s moving ahead a bit too fast.
Just take your time, I say, looking again at my watch, wondering if maybe I’ll have time to get back around to see Melissa. She’s pretty nice when she’s coming down off her peyote, open to comfort and kind words.
Malcolm continues, the place to begin is to point out that really, in one way you look at it, there wasn’t much at stake to begin with. I’ve come to realize this subsequently. I mean it wasn’t like we, my sisters and me, had been in danger of losing Sutpen’s hundred square miles of bottomland or anything like that. No, it was just a pretty little house in a wooded copse, as they say in English poems (of which I’d read no few, until my minister showed me the pagan tenor of most of them and suggested I put them away). We had a small pond with a few fish, and in the spring when the brim were spawning you could fill a basket up using crickets we’d get from the cricket ranch around the corner. A few birds. That’s all. Leaves that change in the fall. The usual stuff you find in the country. Good enough to finish your days out on. Which was exactly what I’d planned all along as soon as we’d get father buried or burned or whatever he’d want done with his remnants. My sisters had all married and moved away and everybody seemed willing to grant me the use of the place as soon as father reached the point where he’d need help and I could take care of him without paying too much attention to his complaints that would surely come along with his waning and demise. But all of that changed when he lost his footing and started slipping towards hell. And that’s a steep and slippery slope, let me tell you, especially when it’s slicked over by alcohol and lascivious body fluids. I can always hear preacher Edward’s sermon to that effect, whenever I think about this.
But anyway, father seemed like he’d gotten over losing mother. We all thought he had. And was settling down into his golden years of mumbling (he always mumbled a lot to himself, even before he started slipping away) and reading and writing letters to the relatives flung far and wide from Dublin to Tupelo, the way he’d always done, only more so, now that life was getting slower and drawing towards its end and settlement, so to speak. He wasn’t what you’d call a documented scholar or anything like that, but he had some culture that had filtered up through the family tree — we had been Mississippi Episcopalian stock, and though of course diminishing through the years as we drew further and further from the source, nevertheless stood us in pretty good stead up until he went wild. But, as is to be expected, I was convinced more than ever that it was all the work of the devil, those modern religions, when I saw what it had done to him — the fancy religion, I mean. That should give you some idea of how he went bad.
But after thinking about it and discussing it with Rev. Edwards, we pretty much believe that it must have had to do with the Irish taint that got to rankling around in there and deflected his path from an otherwise entirely predictable decline into his grave.
I can remember the day exactly it all started, at least for me. It was going down on Elvis Presley just before you get to the light at what was, or maybe still is, Winchester road, named after one of the early Tennessee settlers who had something to do with drawing up a border between Tennessee and Mississippi and had a grandson descendant that proved an embarrassment to us all back in the war years. But I won’t go into that. At any rate, I understand there’s a lot of people from Senegal and Nairobi and places like that, moved into that Elvis Presley part of town now. What used to be a real pretty little neighborhood, Whitehaven it was called, which says it all, and still is, has taken on quite the opposite in character now. Decline of that sort, going on all over America now, reminds me of the souls of little babies that come into the world all clean and stainless and white and then wind up after a few years of wicked mundane commerce with the sexular world, soiled and fouled and all blackened over with the stench of corruption, like Whitehaven now is.
Anyway, set just off the road, fronted by a large plat of oil-smeared asphalt is, or was, a titty-bar. I don’t like using that word, but that’s what it was, a titty-bar. I think they’ve remodeled it now and put in a children’s nursery for colored people — now that’s poetic. And why I was even over in that part of town escapes me now. I mean Elvis Presley himself is the last thing on my list. So I surely wasn’t over there to visit his place. He’s dead and gone now, as well he should be, laid up on his Graceland property and, not to be judgmental or too conceited, but I’m certain he got just what he deserved with his gluttony and dope-taking and all. I mean when you think about him, this big old fat rock-and-roll star laying up there with everything going his way and doing what he did with every skinny woman (and young boys too, I hear; talk gets around Memphis, but you don’t hear it much outside of town, and certainly not in the tourist brochures) who’d come up there in those tawdry rooms he’d had done up like those whorehouses in Babylon.
Anyway, there I was headed home past Elvis’s place and just by accident happened to look over to the left and saw his car, or what I thought was his car parked out front. Accident, did I say? Not really. For I am convinced there is no such thing — not even a sparrow falls, my minister says. But let it go for now as a figment of speech.
No, says I, This cannot be. And I don’t mean an Elvis Presley sighting either, though in a way it was exactly what it was, now that I come to think about it. Imagine people trying to turn that pervert into a god of some kind! But we’re finding more and more of that false-god business nowadays and which explains how you can calculate how close our trajectory is moving toward endtimes. Rev. Edwards has a nice chart drawn up in his office showing it in lines and convergences and trends, with relevant Bible quotes cut in.
But I made my way around the block and came back by. And I swung into one of the gift shops just beyond Elvis’s place. I got out within sight of the Lisa Marie and walked back down the road a bit to the titty-bar. And yeah, by the blood of the risen Christ, it was him alright. The tags looked like what I remembered father’s to be and and so did a few identifying marks on the car that I spotted. Like the baseball peck on the back left quarter-panel when I’d let a pitch get by one day out playing catch with my nephew, Merl. I really like working with kids. Not only is it relaxing, but there’s something wholesome and salvational in it as well, especially when you can turn simple phrases like ’homerun’ into a sort of homily on our future state; which is not to say that good works has anything to do with what’s going to happen on that final day, mind you. It’s intentions that count more than anything, as I’ve said more than once.
Do I stop and go in, or do I wait and just try to sort it out at my leisure? I asked myself. The answer came pretty quick: You just wait, you hear. There’s got to be some other explanation of all this. I’m loathe ever to assume the worst of family until I can get good damning evidence. Maybe, says I, he picked up a part-time job delivering something or, who knows, maybe he’s even passing out tracts. This would certainly be the place to do it. I had been talking to him about coming to the Lord for many months prior. It seemed a possibility that my outreach had borne fruit. So that evening I got home and I called him up.
Father, how are you?
Have a good day?
Fine. Just fine as frog hair. And you?
Oh, tolerable, I guess. I was just out riding around part of the day. Up in the Whitehaven area, near the Presley place.
That should have been enough of a leading hint, but he came back with exactly nothing, except to offer to go on to talk some small talk for a minute or two until I finally couldn’t figure out what else to say. So I came out with, Well, call me if you need anything.
Click. Neat and final, just as always. He was gone. So I decided to stay pretty much out of it for a while.
And yet, sure enough, two weeks later, when I stopped at his place, the home place, the patrimony, for an unannounced visit, early one morning around five or so, he had a friend there with him. Over for coffee, he said. And happened to mention in the course of the conversation, that he’d just met her. She was having some problems and they’d just taken up with one another for conversation, more than anything else. And of course I couldn’t help but smirk a little to myself thinking about that old word for ‘conversation.’ Intercourse, you mean, said I to myself. Pretty early morning it was. Which naturally made me suspicious.
“Charlotte, Malcolm. Malcolm, Charlotte.“ And I shook her nasty little hand and smiled just like I meant it, ”Pleased to meet you.“
And that was it for another two weeks. Until finally she’d moved in. His dancer girlfriend, not yet twenty-five and him more than seventy, who made her money inch-worming up and then back down a chrome pole, head down, mind you, on Elvis Presley. And God only knows what else she did over in the back room they provided there, I’ve been told by reliable sources.
Well, of course, the next thing, but only after praying on it, I remember I was reading in Paul at the time, was to call my sister and say something to this effect: ”The patrimony is all but eviscerated.“
She said, ”Don’t worry. He’s an old man. He’ll get over it. Can’t last long.“
Which was, you’ll have no doubt, easy enough for her to say up in Virginia making lots of money on her real estate ventures and that sort of thing. And too she was big in the Baptist church up there and they’re like Jews — take care of their own. She had no worries. She was fixed. While I sat here watching everything just evaporate.
I was sitting in the recliner and had just closed the sweet book of eternal promises, when she said that. I remember it as if it was yesterday. So I didn’t. I decided then and there to listen to her, to just watch and wait and let it play itself out. And sure enough it did. Not a sparrow falls, I must keep telling myself. Even a single hair casts a shadow.
Once or twice I went by to see her dance, hoping she’d show some small crack in that otherwise obdurate character of hers, or whatever, in which I might come to repose just a modicum of hope. But no. Nothing like that. I mean, what, finally, can you expect from that sort of woman? And that’s not a rhetorical question, either. Not at all.
So she would dance late into the night, and then afterward they’d sit up drinking together till the early hours, until finally the house got sold along with the woods and the birds and the fish, so they could buy more beer and a fancy pimped-out Chrysler. And at last he ran out of money and property and possessions and, of course, you’d know it, whore too, and he had to move in with my sister, and there I was, left with nothing. Well, not quite nothing. I still had my faith. And then what it finally came down to was father laying up in the VA hospital dying.
I remember that day clear as glass, the doctor walking out in the hall there at the hospital and shaking his head and saying, ”He won’t last long. It’s a very advanced case of infantsemens. I suspect he’ll be gone in a fortnight.“ And me not hesitating, but coming right back at him. Everybody thought I was out of place for bringing religion in at that moment and insulting the doctor, but I was frank as could be. I said, ”Well that surely explains it all, given her age and profession. Spend your time with young whores and you’re gonna wind up with infantsemens. Don’t need a medical degree to tell that.” And then I went on to recount the story of Sarah’s seminal emission at Genesis 17:15 and how Rev. Edwards always said it wasn’t that big a miracle. And it wasn’t after all. Those who scoff at that book should maybe just have another look. Those things’ll come back to haunt you just when your pride tells you you have all the answers.
And right there is where I stopped, going over it all in my mind, when I realized how it stood, when the epiphany I was talking about earlier came, sitting here in my chair, and said with as much fervor as I could, ”Dear Jesus, if you can just explain this to me, I’ll be most happy and ever grateful to you.“
The room was real quiet. I could hear the second-hand on-the-wall clock, the pretty gold one from Whoreshoe Casino, making a soft snicking sound as it clipped across each mark. There was this steady wind outside and it was making a low sound almost like a long bass-fiddle note as it blew across the top of the toilet vent pipe on the roof. I closed my eyes and tried to conjure up that silent repose that characterizes all good prayer. I waited with my Bible cradled nicely in my lap. And I waited what must have been a good two or three minutes. But no answer came. There was just this dead scary silence, except for my breathing and the refrigerator compressor rattling on its cradle in the background and the oven ticking off cool after I’d reheated some leftovers for my supper.
It was then I realized that sometimes the silent spaces in a body’s life can be just as important as the speaking parts. So, maybe, after all, Donald Ray is right. Which is to say nothing to the point unless you have ears to hear, I think it was John said.
Father died finally of his infantsemens. A year ago this Easter, I believe it is. As you might suspect, Charlotte didn’t even come to the funeral. She’s still going up and down her pole. But not on Elvis Presley anymore, though. Over on Getwell it is now. And I bet she never passes too many days before seeing her way to another cup of coffee with some unsuspecting man who has a son maybe out there just wanting to live in peace and instead will be forever denied his patrimony because of some whore-woman. Like me, renting this little worn-out metal box in the country and keeping my faith as best I can in the face of no little diversity and disappointment. But there’ll come another day. I see that plain. Another day’s coming.
I looked at my watch and said, Just hold that until next week, Malcolm. I’ve got an appointment with Melissa coming up. But I’ll get back to you. You’ll be alright, won’t you?
Sure, he said. Where am I going to go? You take care, Raphael, you hear.
R. Mullin, having courageously served his country in opposition to one of its too numerous wars, is a fully-accredited PNRFIC, which is to say a Proud Non-Recidivist Formerly Incarcerated Citizen. Nevertheless, family, friends and colleagues continue to refer to him as an ex-convict rather than a war-hero. Both terms are hyphenated. Close enough, one must suppose. In addition, he is a Mississippi writer laboring assiduously under all of the grave disabilities the aforementioned conditions entail. He has been published in The Avalon Literary Review, Iconoclast Literary Journal, The Paterson Literary Review, J Journal and The Nicaraguan Academic Journal.