Charles P. Norman
Word Count 2266
A Short Story by Charles Patrick Norman
I’m sitting at a table my father made from a door, gluing a balsa wood model airplane on the screened in front porch of our little white house on a hill when our dogs, Trixie and Boy Dog, run toward the highway yapping.
It’s a hot, humid summer Saturday afternoon, and the dogs had been dozing in the shade of a tangerine tree until they hear the rattle and clunk of the old station wagon heaving up the hill. My mother’s in the little kitchen. I smell the beans and salt pork she preparing for supper.
“Who’s that coming?”
“What does he want?”
She sighs, turns from stirring her pot of beans, wipes her hands on her apron, and stands in the doorway, hands on her hips.
The dogs bark perfunctorily, walking around the old car. Boy Dog cocks his leg on a tire and pees. The preacher gets out, slams the car door, hitches up his pants. He is a big man, dark hair greased, combed straight back, cheap suit from J.M. Fields, skinny tie, big nose, big smile. He walks up the steps onto the porch, tousles my hair.
“How you doin,’ boy?”
“I’m fine, sir.”
He knew my name, but he never called me anything but boy. I didn’t mind.
My mother steps out of the doorway and shoos my two little brothers inside the house.
“Have a seat.”
He sits in a metal chair. My mother remains standing. She likes the preacher fine, but she doesn’t like company, especially when she’s cooking in a hot kitchen. They exchange pleasantries. I continue working on my model airplane.
“I came by about the boy,” he says.
My mother cuts her eyes at me. What had I done now? I couldn’t think of anything.
“How old are you, boy?”
“I remember when I was twelve.”
He could start talking, and just go on and on. I hoped he had other places to go.
“I need your help.”
“Saturday afternoons I visit families, some of them new, some not, they’re not goin’ to church. Lucille, could I have a glass of that good sweet tea of yours, please?”
“I’m sorry. I should have thought. You must be thirsty.” She is embarrassed.
He smiles. “All that talkin.’ ”
He knew what people thought of him. He wasn’t stupid. A windbag. He didn’t mind. She leaves.
“A lot of these people have children, and even if the grown-ups don’t want to go, we can get the little ones to come to Sunday School, set’em on the right path.”
“What do you want me for?”
“You just come along with me, talk to the children, the ones about your age, tell them about Sunday School, the other kids, you have fun, ask them to come. You can do that. It’s not hard.”
I couldn’t think of an excuse, a way to get out of it. He caught me off guard.
My mother brings the iced tea. He takes several big swallows, his Adam’s apple moving up and down. The ice cubes clank in the glass. He hands the glass back. He sighs.
“Mighty good. Thank you, ma’am.”
Within sixty seconds of his leaving the glass will be washed, dried, and back on the shelf.
“Let’s go, boy, we’ve got some stops to make.”
“No time like the present.”
“Where are you two going?”
“The boy’s gonna go visiting with me, get the children to come to Sunday School.”
“Be home in time for supper. You know how your daddy is about being late.”
“I’ll have him back way before then, Lucille.”
“You’re welcome to stay for supper, preacher.”
She didn’t mean it. She had four pork chops thawing, one for each of us, split one for my little brothers. If he stayed, she’d give up her pork chop, fry a couple slices of salt pork, tell him she didn’t like pork chops. She’d offer him all the beans, corn bread, sliced tomatoes, and green onions he could eat, and her pork chop. I prayed he’d say no.
“That’s mighty kind of you, I’m sorely tempted, as good a cook as you are, but the wife and I were invited to supper at the McCalls.’ I appreciate the offer.”
First stop is a trailer, newly-parked on a bare, treeless lot. A harried woman pours water on a wilted bush in the barren front yard. Two grimy children, a girl and a boy, seven and ten perhaps, play in the hot sand. A kitten tries to get away. The girl drags it back.
Preacher Bowlus goes into his routine. I just stand there, not knowing what to do. I look at the two children. They look back, warily, like I might want to take their cat.
We leave. The church bus will pick up the two children in the morning, take them to Sunday School, and bring them back. The promise of a sweet roll and a glass of orange juice for each child seals the deal. A widow woman bakes the sweet rolls each week. An old man who owns about a mile of orange groves squeezes the juice. He gave the land on which the church is built. He must be rich, but you couldn’t tell it. He drives an old truck on its last legs.
It takes me awhile to get the hang of it. Mostly I am a prop. He would talk, point to me, proof they had children in the church, I suppose. Sometimes there were children, sometimes not. Sometimes he’d pray for them in a booming voice, loud enough for God in Heaven to hear him, Lord, heal their affliction, bring this man a job to support his family, Lord, we ask for rain, for these good folks’ crops. Sometimes they’d look at me like it was my turn, but I was too embarrassed, would duck my head down and shut my eyes till it was over.
Sometimes they’d come to church, sometimes not. The church had bought an old school bus, with HarneyBaptistChurch painted on the side, and it would make the rounds, picking up children. Sunday School swelled. I felt proud, seeing boys and girls we’d visited the day before.
That first afternoon we ended up at the shopping center in TempleTerrace: drug store, hardware store, dime store, Winn Dixie grocery.
“Boy, hand me some of those tracts in the glove box.”
I open the glove box. Inside are bundles of pamphlets held together with rubber bands.
“What are tracts?”
“The Lord’s work, boy. We’re always doin’ the Lord’s work. You never know the time or place the Lord’s gonna call you home. One of these little tracts might save a lost soul from eternal damnation. Give me a pack of those.”
He takes one out and hands it to me. It is no more than three inches by four inches, a few pages stapled together, the cover a line-drawn devil holding a whiskey bottle, a bold-lettered caption about death and alcohol. I flip through it quickly, cartoon-like drawings, a man and his family, the Devil talking over his shoulder, wife pleading, children crying, a man drinking, a bum, family gone, death, then in Hell, smoke rising, little demons poking him, screaming in pain forever, some Bible verses, exhortations against drinking. It seems very crude.
He smiles, puts them in his jacket pocket.
We go inside the grocery. Frigid air chills me, fresh produce smells, the deli, baked goods, trigger salivation. He heads straight to the beer aisle. Surely he’s not going to buy beer. He quickly sticks a tract inside each six pack. I laugh. I get it now. They get home, take out a beer, find the tract. A surprise. He hands me some.
“Here, boy, put these down there on that bottom shelf. Hurry we gotta git.”
We leave. We stop at a little gas station on the way home, near the race track. Mr. Hall comes out. He’s a short, fat black man with a jumble of teeth that poke out past his lips every which-way, looks like he’s smiling all the time. Maybe he is.
“Two dollars’ worth, Eldredge.”
I follow him inside.
“You want a Co-Cola, boy?”
He pulls two small Cokes from the little cooler, pops the bottle caps, hands me one, slaps two ones and some change on the counter. We leave.
“You did good today, boy.”
“I didn’t do much.”
“It’s a start. Lord’s work is never done. God needs your help.”
He drops me off on the highway. I walk up the oyster shell drive through the orange grove on the hill to our house. Trixie and Boy Dog greet me, tails wagging. The preacher turns his car around in the drive. He beeps the horn. I stop.
“See you in church.”
I wave, and turn away.
I work for a cattleman, Mr. Stokes, on Saturday mornings. He’s a good man, the choir director. He can’t sing very well, nobody could really, but they were loud, and they were serious. When they’d sing, “How Great Thou Art,” I’d get goose bumps and look around, expecting to see Jesus with a hymnal in His hand, singing along.
Mr. Stokes must have talked to the preacher. It didn’t matter where we went, looking for cows to buy in three counties in his old truck. He’d have me back home in time to go visiting with the preacher.
“Call me Brother Bowlus,” he says, when I call him “preacher” again.
“We’re all brothers in the Lord.”
The manager at the Winn Dixie caught him stuffing tracts in the six packs and ran us off.
“If you’re not here to buy anything, don’t come back in my store.”
So we begin getting a buggy, put a few things in it, some cans, a loaf of bread, some milk, we’d walk the aisles, stop at the beer aisle, stick in a few tracts.
The manager would stand there sometimes, glaring, and we would leave. Other times, Brother Bowlus would lead the manager over to the wine shelves, a decoy, and I’d double back, put a few tracts in the Busch, Budweiser, Michelob, Pabst, Schlitz, Fisher’s, Old Milwaukee, and slip out. It seemed stupid to me, but it made the old man happy, so I helped the best I could.
Time went by. I quit going to Harney, went to the big church in town with my rich friends, left the country church behind. I made myself scarce on Saturdays, the preacher got the message, quit coming by.
I was seventeen now, working at the Winn Dixie as a bag boy. Every now and then I’d bag a six-pack, see a tract with a crude devil on the front cover, poking an alcoholic with a six-pack, and I’d smile.
One Saturday afternoon I see the preacher. He seems much older, coming out the electric doors with the manager behind him yelling, “And stay out!” He limps. He turns, spots me, and smiles.
“How are you doin,’ boy?”
“Good, sir. Yourself?”
“Fine as frog hair.”
He looks at the couple dozen tracts clutched in his hand.
“Got some new ones here. You wanna take some? I didn’t get a chance to plant any seeds in there today.”
“I better not, sir. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“I understand, boy.”
I turn back to the store. He heads for his old car. Same one.
The manager is standing in front of the store.
“Go get those buggies,” pointing to some abandoned carts across the parking lot by the street.
I see it happen right there in front of me, pushing a line of grocery carts. I hear the tires skidding and brakes squealing first, then turn my head.
Brother Bowlus is looking to his right, coming out of the parking lot, entering 56th Street. He never sees the dump truck racing toward him from the left. The huge truck hits him broadside just as he turns his head back toward the sound.
He flails like a rag doll, thrown from the car an awful long way, hits the pavement and bounces, cars skidding to stop and miss him. He is dead before he hits the ground. The old station wagon seems to fold around the front end of the dump truck like steel origami. The truck slides and wobbles a hundred feet before it stops.
For a moment there is silence, then someone screams, car horn honks, and I run into the street where his crumpled body lies. All life is gone. Blood seeps out from beneath him. There is nothing left, just as he’d said on Sundays, we are husks, and when the Lord takes us, He leaves the shell behind.
I look at him, trying to see some glimmer of the good man I’d known, a better man than I would ever be. All I see are those new tracts fluttering around him on the pavement like butterflies.
I lean over and pick them up. Tears drop into the spreading blood. I reach into the pocket of his cheap suit jacket, take out a bundle more, rise, and turn.
Someone asks, “What are you doing?”
I ignore them, walk back across the parking lot to the store, past the manager gawking, to the beer aisle where the six packs of Busch, Budweiser, Michelob await me.