“Somehow I never thought about goin’ to church when I got sent here.”
“You got your Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, don’t you? Something more than a Carolina tuxedo?”
Ned’s face screwed up like a question mark.
Jamie laughed. “I’m sorry, that’s a joke of Dancin’ Charlie’s. It’s just a clean pair of overalls with the hammer loop ironed down flat. Anyway, you got Sunday duds?”
“Yeah, I’m sure Mom packed ‘em; I just gotta find ‘em.” Ned lifted the lid of his suitcase and started lifting and digging through clothes.
“No rest for the wicked then.” Jamie laid out his pants and shirt on the bed.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s just something Daddy says when he doesn’t want to do something.”
“I guess I better say it today.” Ned lifted his wrinkled Sunday jacket from the suitcase. “‘Cause I sure don’t want to do this.”
Jamie’s mother stuck her head in the door. “Hurry up to breakfast, we’re running a little … Ned Custis, is that your Sunday suit?”
Jamie watched Ned turn with a tight smile and mother-fear eyes, then freeze while Jamie’s mother thumped into the room and took the hanger from his hand.
“Oh, give me that. I’ll have to put an iron on the stove and see if there’s enough time to … Oh, what’s your momma going to think … ” She passed out of the room hissing whispers Jamie preferred not to hear.
Jamie did not mind Sundays per se. He was in complete agreement with God insofar as God designated Sunday as a day of rest. Jamie liked resting, was solidly in favor of it and indulged whenever he could. What Jamie did not understand was why Sundays were thought to be restful, particularly if spent in church clothes. Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes were hot, starched shirt collars were just plain itchy and the shoes hurt.
Most of the folks Jamie knew looked a little out of place in church. Women wore stiff hats, walked upright and careful in high heels, and carried thin slab-sided purses in gloved hands. The men looked as uncomfortable as he, faces tanned from mid-forehead below their hat line to their collar and rough hands emerging from the sleeves of their brushed suit coats.
Only the minister was in his element.
The Right Reverend Costigan Analicious Cramphorne was a broad, bluff-bellied bulldozer of a man whose ego was sufficiently blind as to believe he was both humble and great. His greatest ability, as opposed to virtue, was the talent of complaint. This is not to say his complaints were effective or well-received. They most decidedly were not. But they flowed in a constant stream, varnished at the temporary pauses with ‘Somebody ought to do something’. The idea that the ‘somebody’ could or should be him never entered his mind. This was the primary friction between himself and the self-sufficient parishioners he served. Being self-made, hard-working and independent to a fault, they did not take kindly to the idea of being somebody’s mule. Toil they did and were glad of the chance to pound a living from God’s good earth, but their toil was for themselves and their loved ones, not some outsider suffused with overblown delusions of self-importance. Thus the lines were drawn and dug in.
Jamie heard the opening verbal artillery barrage booming even before his father parked the car as they pulled into the gray sand underneath the pines that surrounded the white clapboard structure known as the Miller’s Landing First Presbyterian Church. In matter of fact it was the only Presbyterian Church, but that didn’t seem to bother anybody but Jamie.
Jamie saw the oh-so-brief glance and head shake that passed between his father and mother as they sat in the car with the engine running.
Gloria piped up between Jamie and Ned in the back seat. “Are we going in?”
His mother’s mouth tightened in a smirk. His father said, “In a minute, honey. Just need to let the engine cool off a little.”
Jamie heard more artillery over the sound of the engine and lifted his head to look through the front windshield. He saw the silver-headed, black-robed figure of the reverend waving his arms at a rock-still man standing with crossed arms.
His mother turned the rear view mirror over toward herself and adjusted her hat. “Grant. It’s time to go.”
Jamie’s father tilted his head to one side. “Just thought I’d sit a little bit to let the Right Reverend rage against the philistines without interference.”
“Now Grant,” his mother said, “don’t confuse the style with the message. Don’t forget the third chance is a charm.”
Jamie’s mother did believe in giving folks more than two chances. This is not to say she left the door open to be taken advantage of. That just meant she gave folks a couple of chances to prove themselves contemptible before she wrote them off. “Ready?”
His father let out a heavy breath through his nose. “As I’ll ever be.” He switched off the car, swung his door open and stepped out into the white sunshine. Jamie followed and helped Gloria out of the car.
Ned tugged on Jamie’s sleeve. “See you later, gotta go find my folks.” Jamie watched Ned walk away, scanning the crowd for his mother and father.
Jamie’s mother tugged on his other sleeve and pulled him towards the church. “Take your hands out of your pockets.”
“There’s no other place to put them.”
“Clap them behind your back. It makes your clothes look better.”
Jamie opened his mouth to say that whoever was in charge of the clothes shoulda made them look better with hands in, but thought better of it. He didn’t mind so much. His father clasped his hands behind his back that way, usually when he was lost in thought.
The church bell rang one loud clear peal. The next excuse for a ring was a thin quivering tink. Mrs. Hera Cramphorne insisted with the fervent intensity of the faithful that the job of ringing the bell was hers despite the fact she had nowhere near enough strength or weight to pull on the rope and get the job done.
“When is Hera going to let somebody else ring that bell?”
“Grant, hush.” Jamie’s mother herded them together and up the slight hill to the church.
Jamie watched his father’s face. It was always set hard before walking past the onslaught of Cramphorne’s welcome at the church doors. It was an experience that made a body wince, a double barreled gauntlet between verbal blast and suffocating handshake. Every time he watched his father shake hands with Cramphorne he noticed that afterward his father quietly pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his palm and fingers.
Today Cramphorne rested one heavy hand on Jamie’s shoulder and made a point of shaking his hand too. “This one’s growing into a young man, Grant.” The grip felt like his hand was swallowed in sweaty bread dough that had been left too long out of the icebox.
Jamie’s father clasped his hands behind his back. “Getting there, Reverend, getting there.”
After they had passed the doorway his father silently handed Jamie his handkerchief. Jamie nodded his thanks and tried to wipe the feeling from his hands. His father said “Yeah,” put his hand on Jamie’s shoulder and guided him to their pew.
The four of them sat down amongst the garden of fluttering funeral home fans beating the hot air around like giant butterflies laboring to fly free. Jamie and Gloria sat between their parents on the hard wooden pews made slick by countless bottoms squirming under the weekly scrutiny of ministers staring down from the pulpit, entreating their congregation to renew their resolution.
The great lumbering thunder of Cramphorne’s voice obliterated any subtlety there may have been in the air.
“WE,” he boomed to the sanctuary, “are all farmers. This time of summer, is the perfect time to reflect on the cultivation of our spirits as well as the noble earth we plow.”
Jamie heard Ned’s voice, low and quiet in the pew directly behind. “Ya think he’s ever plowed ground?”
Jamie snorted and covered his mouth and tried to make it sound as if he was having a cough or a sneeze. Above his head he heard his father’s low voice. “Shush.” When he looked up he saw a tight frown dimple on his father’s face he knew was a smile in disguise.
“WE must ensure the furrows we plow are straight …” the Reverend pointed his hand straight ahead.
“We? You got a mouse in your pocket?” Behind him Jamie heard a quick pop, a quiet ‘Ow’ then a feminine whispered “Behave, young man. Where’d you learn such a smart mouth?”
Jamie bent his head, then took a breath and held it to keep from laughing.
“WE must ensure tend our crops faithfully, weeding wherever we find the entangling vines of evil and sin and chop them out before they have the opportunity, before they have a ghost of a chance at winding themselves around our hearts and squeezing the righteousness from our souls. Because the Devil is a weed, my brethren, he is a weed. A weed that will never stop reaching toward the sweet deep root of righteousness.”
Cramphorne raised his hand and clenched the air, his fist looking like a fat mottled mushroom poking out of the black sleeve of his robe.
“And like the choking weeds in our gardens that we know only too well, that devil will never stop coming for us, will never cease his wicked forays into our lives. WE must be ever vigilant, ever ready and more, WE must be ever on the alert for signs of encroachment into the gardens of our hearts. WE all know what that weed looks like. WE only have to look within our own hearts at that possession we covet, the shape of that bottle we feel we must have or any of a thousand other things that are the ghostly images of sin reeking, reaching to become real. Smite them! Recognize them for the wickedness they are and DRIVE them from your heart for they will melt like a snowfall in summertime under the bright heat of holy righteousness … “
Not for the first time in church, Jamie’s attention was beaten flat and sank into his own thoughts. He reached the point where he was past the bombast and simply watched the man wave his arms about like a great fat flapping black bird taking a sand bath in the back yard.
Jamie was startled out of his reverie by the clatter of tiny shoes on the hard wooden pew beside him. He turned and saw his sister Gloria jerk in a squirming fit. Jamie’s mother stood and steadied Gloria by one arm. She tapped Jamie on the shoulder. “Come help me get her into the aisle.”
Jamie held his face carefully still as he stood and lifted Gloria up and guided her out of the pew.
His mother took Gloria’s arms from him. “I’ve got her now, Jamie. Thank you, sit back down now.”
He watched his mother and Gloria move up the aisle to see if they needed any more help. The open double doors beyond them in the back of the sanctuary beckoned to him as an avenue of escape.
Jamie saw a tall thin man sitting in the last pew. Half the man’s face was covered in scar like hard gray clay on a riverbank. Gloria stomped unsteadily in front of Jamie’s mother, lower lip pushing the air when she looked up and saw him too. Her cry carried like a crow caw. “Mommy, look at that man! Mommy, what’s wrong with his face?”
Jamie’s mother bent down to her daughter, jerked on her arm. “You behave, young lady, you just hush right now. And leave that man alone.” She looked up at the man as they passed him. “I am so sorry, Sabastian.” The man nodded to her just once.
Jamie looked to his father, who shook his head and mouthed ‘later’, pointed at the pew seat and then back up toward the pulpit. Jamie followed his father’s finger and looked up right into the red storm cloud of the Right Reverend Cramphorne’s face. Jamie felt his face go hot. He sat as quickly and as small as possible in the pew right next to the end.
The Right Reverend paused, glared around the sanctuary then grasped his hymnal from the edge of his podium. He sucked in a breath and boomed, “Let us all say ‘Amen’ to that feeling in our hearts and stand to sing number 27 in our hymn books. Let us raise our voices to the Lord for forgiveness of our sins …”
Mrs. Cramphorne’s fingers pounded the opening strains on the out-of-tune piano and Cramphorne’s voice boomed through the sanctuary. The Reverend had caught even the choir by surprise and a great rustling of clothes and pages rose as everyone grabbed their hymnals and flipped to the called page.
Jamie’s seat by the aisle meant he could bolt once service was over and he took full advantage. As soon as he was through the double doors and into the sun he felt he could breathe again. He sat on the edge of the steps and looked for the man with the scarred face as he waited for his family to emerge in the quietly burbling throng that trickled out onto the lawn. His father sat down beside him.
He watched his father tap a cigarette out of his pack, stick it to his lip, flip open his lighter, apply the flame to the tip of it and draw the smoke in deeply.
“You all right, Daddy?”
His father nodded and exhaled smoke. “I will be in a minute.”
“Grant! Grant Garrath!” A high male voice pitched at them from the throng.
“Or not.” Jamie heard his father low mutter, then scanned the collection of small groups gathered on the grass.
He did not need to look very hard. Jeremiah Mason was clearly visible, steamrolling toward them, his skinny bow legs striding so fast they could hear the slap of pant cloth against his legs, his arms arched out from his body ending in stubby fists. Old Man Mason, as he was called, had very large hands for a man so small and wiry.
‘Dammit Grant, dammit all to hell, he done it again! Sarah is just beside herself. She hates it when her choir gets caught out like that.”
Jamie’s father held up one hand. “I know, Jeremiah, I know.”
“Not following the church service is just … I’m as religious as the next man, but I don’t like surprises! I want God and his minister to be something I can count on, not some damn jackrabbit I gotta go off chasing ever time he gits a wild hair.”
His father’s hand came up quickly to cover his grin, but Old Man Mason wasn’t finished.
“That ain’t solid rock, now is it? No matter what the hymn says, no it ain’t. I just don’t like it, never have and never will!”
‘We’ll have to talk to him about it, I suppose.’
“You, me and the Elders need to talk to the Reverend Flapjaw a little more’n that.”
“Now, Mr. Mason. What’s the trouble now?”
“Don’t you ‘Mr. Mason’ me, Grant Garrath. Lily Turner over at the county home tol’ me that he done quit seeing the old folks and the shut-ins. That’s a good part of a respectable minister’s work seems to me, tending those who can’t get to church on their own.”
Jamie’s father lowered his eyebrows at Mason. “He refused?”
“He just don’t do it. Lily told me that when she asked him when he was going to visit, he just changed the subject. Gave her some platitude or ‘tother about ‘seeing what can be done.’ You know what that means, don’t you?”
“In another line of work, I’d say he’d picked out someone else he figured he could get to do it for him.”
“What makes you think a minister’s any different?”
“Well, he’s supposed to be on a higher plane, isn’t he? Leading his flock by example?”
Old Man Mason smiled wide, showing gaps behind his eye teeth. “My point per-zactly. What he’s ‘posed to do and what he’s a’doin’ are two different things. And you saw how he was thunderin’ at Pete Alderman before services; I still don’t know what that’s about. Come the meeting, we’ve got to have a little word of prayer with that man.”
Jamie’s mother walked up with a red-faced Gloria in tow. Holding Gloria’s other hand was Sarah Mason. Sarah, quiet and strong, came up behind her husband and took his arm. “You ready for some dinner? I need to get home and put on that roast.”
Jamie watched Old Man Mason’s shoulders relax. Whenever Mrs. Mason was around he was always quieter. It was as if Mason fought the raging sea and Sarah’s presence smoothed the waters, her face his calm anchorage and ease from the storm.
Old Man Mason patted her hand on his arm. “All right.” He tipped his hat to Jamie’s mother. “Hannah.” He looked at Jamie’s father. “See you at the meeting, Grant. Good Sunday to you.”
“Good Sunday to you too, Jeremiah.”
Jamie and his father walked slowly back toward the car while his father finished his cigarette. “Who was that man in the back pew, Daddy? I don’t think I’ve seen him before.’
“That is Sabastian Wood. He’s a quiet fella, keeps to himself a lot.”
“What happened to his face?”
“He got burned in the war, but I don’t know, exactly. He’s never volunteered any information and I’ve never been rude enough to ask him.”
“You never talked with him?”
Jamie’s father shook his head. “Not to speak of. I’ve run into him at Gil’s store a few times. We nod hello, but I’ve never sat down and talked with him, just never had occasion to. Why?”
“Momma seemed to know him.”
“I think she knows him through his sister Clara, but don’t you be getting all ‘Nosy Norris’ now, you hear me? That man has done harm to no one I know and he has a right to his privacy.”
“Yessir. He ever been to church before?”
“He’s there most Sundays.”
“Why haven’t I seen him? He’s awful quiet, popped up like a ghost or something.”
“Some call him that. He comes in after everybody else and leaves before the service is over. Like I said, he hurts no one and lives quiet. You can’t ask for more from a man than that.”
“What?” Jamie had heard of ‘The Ghost’ but had never laid eyes on him. “He’s ‘The Ghost’?”
His father stopped walking. “Mr. James, don’t you ever let me hear you calling him that, especially to his face, you hear me?”
“But …” Jamie’s question froze stillborn. His father’s face had turned to rock. “Yessir.”
Jamie shoved his hands in his pockets and stayed put as his father took a deep drag on his cigarette and started back to the car.
Ned came up right beside him and whispered in his ear as soon as Jamie’s father was out of earshot. “What happened with Gloria?”
“She’s has little fits sometimes.” Jamie looked at the ground.
Ned spoke quiet. “How ‘bout that fella in the back pew?”
Jamie looked back up. “That’s the Ghost. Can you believe it?”
“The Ghost. You’ve never heard of him?”
“No, but I’ve seen him though. He came in the store one time and bought the oddest bunch of stuff. I couldn’t read him like I do other folks.”
“What do you mean ‘read him’? What did he buy?”
Ned looked at his feet. “Oh, linseed oil, some spar varnish, a tin of pumice and a can of talcum powder.”
“What in the world … ?”
“That what Pop asked him. He said he was getting his lines ready to go fishing.”
“Fishing? That don’t make any sense.” But then it did. Jamie remembered the morning on the way to the mill when he had seen the long switch flicking against the sky and a fedora pushed back on a tall man’s head. Going fishing took on a whole new meaning.