Wednesday, April 11, 2012
LaFourche Parish, Louisiana 1981
It doesn’t feel right, the pickup truck coming down the road in my direction. It’s not doing anything wrong. The cloud of road dust behind it. The guy with the baseball hat in the passenger seat with his arm out the window. The driver looking at me and slowing down. I’m already wondering what’s the right way to play this. Look straight ahead. Keep it on the low down. Look at the road, look at the trees, look at the levee. Just keep walking to the next house.
The fund raising team captain dropped me off here a couple of hours ago. He won’t be back until long after dark. I’m getting low on brandy snifter candles which is what I’ve been selling or offering for donations for my church. There are certain vocations that give you the opportunity to talk to people you normally wouldn’t get to meet. A writer researching a book. An investigative reporter or a detective. Or in my case, a member of a Mobile Fundraising Team for my church, some would say a cult. Whatever it is, its mine and I’m here now.
The truck is slowing down and my spidey sense doesn’t like it. Not at all.
It’s almost night. The sun is delicately dying, the sky changing to sapphire flame giving the levee banks a muted monastic beauty. The air turns to smoke blue space and a shroud of silence covers everything except the tree frogs who have begun to sing. This is country dark and there aren’t any street lamps out here.
The truck stops in front of me, waiting, and I guess I can’t walk past it.
The pickup truck is this orange and white Ford with a gun rack on the rear window which is as standard as a spare tire around these parts. There are two rifles in the gun rack. The guy on the passenger side is definitely looking at me and chewing something. He has a mustache and his hair sticks out on all sides under the cap which says “Paddock Lounge” and has a green clover leaf. He smiles and waves. Hey, boy. A head comes around from the tail area in the back and looks to see why they’re stopping. Three guys. I wonder if this is how a black man feels walking around here alone.
“Need a ride?” says Mustache, smiling friendly.
“Naw, I’m good thanks,”
“You sellin’ them?”
“It’s for my church,” I say in a big voice, toughing it out. I give him my best big shit eating grin and grab a green candle, the least appealing in the box. It’s supposed to smell like Bayberry, whatever that is, but comes out more like Pine Sol. I step right up to the side door and look him in the eye. Thank God I’m chewing gum. Chewing gum is like a lightning rod for nerves, and meeting strangers makes me nervous and it’s all I do every day. Chewing gum hides the nervous tick playing around the middle of my lips right now. I snap my gum loud and he chews whatever he’s got and together we’re just grinning away, perky as rats in liverwurst. I hold the candle under his nose.
“Shit, that’s one nice candle, kid,” he says and take its gently from my hand and shows it to the driver. “Ain’t that a fucker of a candle?”
The driver recoils from it and waves. I silently agree, the Bayberry’s aren’t that great. “Get the fuck away from me,” he says
“Hey,” says Mustache. “I get my old lady one, think she’ll suck my dick?”
I try to laugh. “You’ll just have to find out. But we don’t give refunds on that.”
“She don’t like candles. What you sellin’ candles for anyway?”
“Helping my church.”
“Ain’t you supposed to be selling Bibles or cookies maybe?”
“I like cookies, me.” says the guy in the back.
“Sorry buddy, no cookies. Ever eat a candle? Little hot sauce, they’re great.”
That gets a big laugh all around. Maybe it’s okay.
“You got change for a . . . fifty?”
“Naw,” I say, trying to get my voice just right and failing like a rich Yankee politician trying to win white trash votes. “It’s been bad. Nobody likes candles around here. Guess the Baptists got here first selling Bibles.”
Another good laugh. Hell, I’m a riot.
“Fuck this,” says the guy in the back. “Let’s go.”
Mustache hands the candle back. “Sorry, kid. Come back with some cookies.”
I feel relieved he didn’t just drive off with it. I drop it back in the box. He holds out his hand for me to shake.
I don’t know what to do. Guys get dragged this way. I slap his palm, sort of shake thumbs quick and take my hand back but he doesn’t seem to be up to anything. He’s looking at me, but the smile’s gone.
The truck goes back into gear and sprays a little gravel, pulling away. I hear it leaving. I want to look back over my shoulder, but I don’t want to look scared.
I walk a little ways and I don’t hear the truck. I kneel down and pretend to tie my shoe.
Down the road the truck is turning around. The rear window reflects against the sunset and I can see through it. The rifles aren’t on the gun rack.
If this were a movie this is the moment some poor sucker would run down the middle of a well paved road trying to out run a truck while carrying a load of candles. I know better. I run like hell for the trees.
The mosquitoes whine in my ear and now even nature is after me. I toss the box of clattering glass candles overboard in some bushes near the road. I feel a funny pang of guilt as though I were abandoning my duty to God, like a soldier throwing down his gun on a battlefield and running away. When the van comes around we can come back and look for them, but right now I need to travel light.
The truck has stopped and I hear them whooping back there. A flashlight beam is spanning the trees and I hop through the bushes trying not to make too much noise. But these guys are coming.
Far away I can see it, a house or a building or something with lights on. People. Witnesses. But there’s a dark wide stretch of fallow field between me and there.
I stay close to the tree line to prevent showing a profile. The light is almost gone and I can’t see my feet down below anymore. If I stay in the woods, running blind I’ll twist an ankle or run my face into a tree and I’ll be dead meat.
“Hey little buddy! Gimme me a fucking candle!”
I start running on ground I can’t see, fall on my face and jump up fast. They track my noise and I hear the sounds closing in. We’re all navigating by radar in the country dark. Those lights way over there are all I’ve got going. Maybe these guys live there, what do I know right now. It’s insane to realize that somewhere kids are doing homework and grownups are washing dishes.
I can hear them thrashing around on all sides of me, trying to flank me. I don’t think they can see me, they just know where I am. I take aim at the house lights and launch myself across the field and feel my feet sinking and squishing in the wet ground. The mud grabs my shoe and yanks it off me and my sock sticks in the gunk. It’s like running in a dream where you never get anywhere. I drop down on my face, press down flat on the ground and wait.
One of the guys is coming up beside me. I can’t see much of anything now, but neither can he. The moon comes out from behind a cloud and he’s standing in the moonlight about the length of a dining room table away from me. I hold my breath. As he turns I can see the shadow of it on his belt. A leather sheath. A deer hunting knife. What folks here call an “Arkansas toothpick.”
A mosquito whines in my ear and I feel the sting of it on my neck. I can’t slap. I don’t even dare shake my head. I have to take it. Another on my arm. Sonuvabitch. I have to take it. My nose is pressed against a thistle.
He moves his feet. He turns his head. He’s looking right at me.
Joy is usually thought of as a kind of intensified happiness. But in theology “Joy” is defined specifically as the relationship that exists between a person and God. It’s the presence of God, the confidence that you and God have a bond of love between you. If you pursue God, the image you have of that God is everything, for all Gods are idols in the end. But an idol has power. In the life of Joy, our every moment is bound to our image of God, walking with God, chatting and sleeping with God like a lover and unfailing companion. If your God is a God of love, the heart swells and blooms. Your God will give you wings and show you the beauty of other people. If your companion is a God of fear, that possessive God will clip your wings. Such people live in a world constantly swatting away demons and living for an afterlife of reward shared with no one. Such a person will never be at home anywhere, having forsaken this world and will always be in a state of exile.
The historical Jesus would not recognize himself as he’s presented by preachers today. He’s the fodder of politicians and every imaginable agenda. What gun would Jesus buy? Who would he vote for? The Jesus of the bible told his followers to just go, to pack nothing. Give all you own away and live as the lilies of the field and dwell with all your heart on Joy, on the love of God, to step away from the known and predictable and throw yourself boldly into the unknown. This is the ultimate spiritual alchemy that transforms the heavy iron chains of reality into the gold of that interior world of the resurrection where Man can still walk in the Garden with God. If you have the privilege of living in that interior, movable, mutable Garden, like Adam, or as I once did, you will never be healed of it when you cast yourself out to wear the chains of realism again. This is the secret compulsion behind the making of fiction and poetry and myth. All myths are ultimately our myths. It’s why the myth of Jesus’ resurrection resonates through the ages and inspires the best and worst in Mankind. It gives us the power to bend reality.
I lie in the mud with my God and I’m not afraid anymore. I throb with Joy. I am thrilled by Joy. He casts the shadow of His hand over me and the man turns away, unseeing. I wait a long time listening, following the direction of their voices. They’re looking in the trees. I get up slow, put my shoe on and slink away across the field and into the weeds.
I hop over a barb wire fence, get my balance and run up to that building with the lights. As I get close I can hear it, a rocking gospel choir, the people inside are having a prayer meeting. I put my hand on the knob and turn. The door opens and I’m flooded with light and the weight of human warmth and voices.
As I come down the aisle clods of top soil drop off my clothes to the carpet. Every eye turns to look and the music staggers to a stop. The preacher I guess, a man in a maroon seersucker suit says “May we help you, sir?” They know I’m not coming down the aisle to be saved, not by the likes of them. Though I surely have been. These are all black people.
“Yeah,” I say. “Um. May I use your phone, please?”