I knew Joe better than anybody still alive. We were playing together even before we started school and, although we were very different from each other, we never quarreled. There were times when I needed his help and he gave it to me, others when he needed mine and I gave it to him. We were what people call friends, but, when they say that word, they usually mean less than what I do. I guess we were more like brothers, although we had no family connection of any kind. I have always run like water downhill, meandering back and forth to find the easiest path and flowing slower or faster with the slope. Joe was always trying to stop water from flowing downhill, damming it and damning it in the name of the Lord, with whom he lived more intimately than with anybody else. I have never seen anger as fierce as his when he couldn't make water flow uphill. It flashed like lightning in his blue eyes, it froze his face, hardening and honing his downward sloping features, it even seemed to sharpen his nose, which stood like a monumental rock on a desolate landscape. His body quivered and his voice rumbled deep in his chest. Though only five foot six and 134 pounds, he scared men a foot taller and twice as heavy; he even scared women who could handle men like that and there are more of them than most people think. Joe was the only man I have ever known who feared nothing and nobody except God, yet this fear resembled no other I have ever known. In his early years, he respected God as if he were his father and, later, as if he were his older brother.
There are events in everybody's life that he will never forget and, if he tries, he will only engrave them more deeply in his memory. Joe and I were playing together once when my mother sent us to buy a loaf of bread at the store. In those days, Nevers only consisted of houses, stores and nondescript buildings along Through Street, where little boys could walk safely down to Pagus Grocery which was on our side. From three to five men were always talking bizness around the stove, even during the warmer half of the year. They paid no attention to us, while we considered them a kind of furniture. Momma had given me a quarter to buy a loaf of Schiller Bread at 20¢, but, with an eye on the candy, I asked Will Pagus for a loaf of Miller Maid.
told you to buy Schiller Bread," said Joe in a voice that turned every
head in the store.
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"Schiller?" Will coaxed me.
I was embarrassed.
Drew Brighty chuckled and chirped: "Miller Maid will leave you 5¢ for candy."
Hirm Marshaway glared at him: "Shame on you, Drew."
"He's too old for shame," cackled Freeze Henderson.Why did they call him Freeze?
The vestryman of St. Gregory's looked down at me: "Don't you think you had better spend your mother's money as she intended?"
A woman at the meat counter in back turned around: "He sure should!" I can't remember which one she was.
"Everybody's entitled to a commission on the errands he runs," moralized the town libertine.
"His mother knows that Miller Maid only costs 15¢," observed the mower of town lawns. "How is he going to explain that?"Joe: "It's wrong to spend other people's money without their consent."
When I recall his tone of voice and the lesson he was giving these adults, both seem ridiculous to me now and yet the ensuing silence proves that he had surprized them. Nobody laughed, nobody even smiled as adults do when children usurp their authority.
Joe hadn't shamed me, but I saw what I had to do: "Schiller, Sir."
Drew smiled at Joe: "You must be the smartest kid in your Sunday-school class.""It's never too late to learn."
The adults laughed at Drew, who laughed too: "Why is it wrong to spend other people's money without their consent?"Joe hadn't laughed: "because it offends the Lord."
"Even when they stole it from somebody else?""No sin can erase another sin."
Soon he was asking the questions.
"Who gave you your money?" he asked the manager, sole employee and eventual owner of the First (and only) Bank of Nevers.
The adults laughed at Hirm, who tried to laugh too: "I guess the Lord did.""What does he expect you to do with it?"
"Give it to the poor... but I do that all the time!"
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Everybody was laughing except Hirm and Joe.
"What are you going to ask me?" said Freeze who didn't think there was anything to ask.Joe smiled slightly: "Ask yourself."
We must have been four years old then. He had other opportunities to rebuke me and did it as solemnly as on that occasion. While listening politely, I never repented and he never seemed to mind, an exception he made for me. Why? I have no idea. He knew I didn't believe in what he preached, he saw that I ignored his example, yet we got along pretty well. How could that be possible? I don't know. The more our lives diverged, the more tolerant we became of each other. He didn't seem to notice how much everybody admired him. Parents urged their children to follow his example and, although the children seldom took their advice, they didn't resent it. Girls were sighing over him, but he paid no attention. The school bully let sissies go when he approached, listened respectfully to his rebuke and swore he would leave them alone, although he forgot this promise as soon as Joe turned his back. Teachers and pupils alike reserved the highest honors and responsibilities for him, yet none went to his head. Neither did his preoccupation with morals and religion bore anybody, nor did his indifference to popular trivialities offend anybody. Everybody worshiped the god of good, everybody except me, and I didn't advertise my dissent. Indifference to sports, which distinguished us from other boys, may have been the only trait we had in common.
Joe, but they liked me, even when they disapproved of me. Parents tried
to keep their children away from me, but with little success. Disappointed
by Joe, girls resorted to me and I gave them all the attention they wanted.
I didn't mind if they weren't pretty because pretty girls thought they
were doing you a favor. Girls praised Joe even when they were having fun
with me. He got all A's and I got mostly C minuses; he didn't have to study
very hard and I studied only as hard as I had to. Although teachers didn't
trust me, most of the pupils made excuses for me and I even had the school
bully on my side. Two grades behind, Lou Upentick's stupidity was as great
a threat as his size. I sicked him on boys I didn't like and kept him away
from those I did. How easy it was to reward his obedience! A piece of bubble
gum, a girl asking to see him flex his biceps. He didn't realize she was
making a fool of him as we watched from an upstairs window. The
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classmates who ran fastest, dodged quickest, jumped highest, caught best and threw, hit or kicked furthest didn't like it when I ridiculed them. They would have retaliated if Lou hadn't given them opportunities to show how fast they could run and how quickly they could dodge. They usually saw the advantages of joining us. While everybody except me worshipped the god of good, almost everybody our age, except Joe, sacrificed to the god of evil just in case.
You may have guessed that my reputation depended on the lack of competition in our school and our town. I never stole unless theft was easy and undetectable. I would never have assaulted, raped or murdered because of the risk. While I always took the easiest course, I always stopped short of giving enough offense to incite a reaction against me. In reality, I was a relative god and Joe, an absolute god. Yet gods we were in the world of Nevers, population 229. Our childhood evolved to a predictable youth with Joe abstaining and me indulging myself. He was breaking hearts and I was fornicating with every willing female in town, a few of whom were married and one of whom had to resort to an abortion. Yet I avoided like the plague they might have been all women whose health I doubted. Drew once invited me to his house to settle a bet over the fraction of women between seventeen and twenty-one that I had seduced. Some had bet one third and others, one fourth at the Gentleman's Club, the equivalent of a bar in our dry county, and $137 was riding on my testimony. I couldn't remember whether I had seduced six or seven by then, but even seven would have been less than a fourth, so everybody got his money back. Meanwhile, Joe was attracting at least half of the boys and girls our age to activities sponsored by Resurrection Tabernacle. He organized a square dance every Saturday night in the basement of the big white frame building at the west end of Through Street. Although I enjoyed these dances, I hesitated to attend because Joe ended them at eleven with a prayer and chaperoned us down Through Street, stopping at each girl's house so we could say goodnight to her. If a couple snuck away from the flock, the girl's parents would take alarm when it didn't stop at their house. My fun had usually just begun by eleven.
The other half
of the boys and girls our age celebrated Saturday night by drive-arounds,
a tradition learned from the eighteen and over. My reputation had inspired
some of these elders to initiate me to the secrets of
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debauchery. They took me with them once to Concordia where they could buy liquor over the counter and sex at Carter's Cabins. I disappointed them when I told the lineup I was just looking. I didn't like the risk and, besides, the girls in Nevers were nicer. Every Saturday night, the elders provided us with beer, bourbon, gin or worse on a commission which they drank from the bottle. A drive-around began when one of us borrowed the family car and drove around picking up his friends and the liquor. When no more passengers could squeeze into that car, we borrowed another one and packed it too. Then we tore up and down Through Street between the Bigbite Drive-In in the west and the Silverscreen Drive-In in the east. The more we drank, the wilder we behaved, both inside the cars and outside. You could have guessed what was going on all around you: the girls began to shriek and slap, and the boys to snicker, then there were sighs, groans and hard breathing. The boys were exploring the girls, but there were some girls who explored the boys. Hands from girls sitting on either side of me once met at my fly and, after some hesitation, unzipped me and slipped inside. I got there just in time with a handkerchief I kept for such emergencies. Connie Stevens laughed a laugh I had never heard from her before.
Towards one in
the morning, our drivers raced each other from the Silverscreen to the
Nevers Country Club three miles out on Route 67, which was straight but
only two lanes in those days. At 80 miles an hour, our drivers had drunk
enough to be dangerous, especially if the road was icy, yet they somehow
managed never to kill or even hurt anybody seriously. We were scared, but
we enjoyed being scared, if you know what I mean. When we got to the club,
we drove out to the eleventh hole, turned the radios up as loud as possible
-- sometimes they weren't even tuned to the same station -- and milled
around the cars. Then we played our version of hide and go seek: after
deciding which couple was "it", we ran off, usually in couples but sometimes
alone or in groups of three, and we had ten minutes to "piss or fuck."
When the "its" caught somebody urinating, he or she was "it" next time,
but, if they caught a couple fornicating, they assembled the whole gang
to watch and cheer, although the couple had usually stopped, stood up and
pulled their pants up by then. There were some boys and even a few girls
who bragged that they had pissed and fucked without being caught. I did
both a few times myself, but it took cooperation. When we tired of this
game, we drove back into Nevers, stopped at the house of
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somebody we didn't like, turned our radios up again, honked our horns and danced on the lawn for ten minutes, then we dispersed before our victims could call the town cop out of the bed he shared with his enormous girl friend and on to the scene. Sip Gitts didn't give us much trouble because he made more money catching out-of-state speeders, who didn't like slowing down to 25 mph. The state police caught us several times on the road to the Club, gave our drivers tickets and even arrested them once, but we got off with scolding and fines.
Already a little high, we were sitting in Bigbite's one Saturday evening, joking and laughing, when Joe entered with some contemporaries who disapproved of us. As soon as he saw us, however, he brought them over. He spoke to us so cordially and genuinely that it sobered us up. While his companions followed his example reluctantly, we were embarrassed and tried to behave, stiffling a giggle here and a guffaw there. Noticing that he awed my companions, I almost wondered whether he could shame them into a promise of repentence. He and his friends, he said, had just returned from a revival in Velvet Rise, a store and a few houses seven miles northwest of Nevers on Route 323. His friends recalled the hymns they had sung and the preaching they had heard with such pleasure that they almost forgot their audience. A couple who had been holding hands, slipped their arms around each other. In my companions' faces, I saw every emotion from astonishment to admiration. Would there be no race to the club, no hide and go seek, no dancing on the lawns of people as innocent and happy as these? Unaffected by the emotions on either side, I was wondering whether one of us would invite them to join us. Yet Joe, who masterminded the event without appearing to, sent his group back to a booth on the other side of the room by turning his head in that direction. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. Seeing that he wanted a word with me, I stood up carefully and walked even more carefully with him to the middle of the room. "Trav," he said, "you are my friend and I pray for you."
"... Thanks, Joe, I appreciate it. You are my friend too."We tried to race to the club, but neither driver got over 75. Hide and go seek caught nobody urinating or fornicating and we didn't feel like dancing on anybody's lawn. Although our parents dragged us to church the next morning, several admitted that they had enjoyed it this time. My parents, the businessmen and the professionals drove to St. Gregory's in cars, while
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Joe's, the tradesmen and the farmers drove to the Tabernacle in pickups. Despite intolerant minorities at both ends of Through Street, the two communities got along pretty well. You already know that Hirm attended St. Gregory's; Freeze went to the Tabernacle and Drew did his laundry. Drew reminded everybody within earshot that he believed in God too, but couldn't find him at either end of Through Street and came closest while ironing his laundry after it had dried on the line behind his house. The scent of clean hot cotton filled him with an ecstasy unknown elsewhere in town. The ritual of hanging laundry out to dry, watching it flap in the wind and bringing it back inside beat anything that happened in the other two places of worship. The Reverend Bartholomew Creek preached forgiveness at St. Gregory's, while the Reverend Cecil Carstens thundered against sin in the Tabernacle. Although neither mentioned Drew's name, everybody knew who they had in mind. I wondered whether they were doing him a favor or he was doing them one.
I remember a
Saturday night when we broke all records. Sharing a fifth of Buzzard Brew
with Connie and Holly Stevens, I laid them both on the golf course. We
were so drunk and excited that we tore each other's underpants. It was
the first time their parents had let fifteen-year old Holly come with us.
Wild with joy, she kept twisting and pulling at me, so that we had a simultaneous
orgasm. I felt as if she had drained my body dry, leaving it in a tingling
delight. She screamed and I shouted. I wonder if we scared the its away.
She must have shed a pint of blood on the green of the twelfth hole, where
golfers couldn't have missed it the next day. Afterwards, we went on a
rampage down Through Street, turning our radios up, honking our horns,
laughing, yelling, dancing, puking and pissing. We were about to start
breaking, smashing and maybe even burning when Sip caught up with us, his
underpants showing white through his open fly. Connie was pointing at him
and shrieking with laughter. Once Sip had zipped himself up, he pleaded
with us just to go home and go to bed. Under the streetlight, his bushy
mustache made him look so consternated that we felt sorry for him. He had
always treated us with the indulgence of a backup father. You are probably
wondering why I have said so little about our parents. Well, there isn't
much to tell, except that each couple hesitated between the hope that their
own children were behaving better than the others and the fear that they
were behaving worse. When we disgraced them, they scolded and punished
us with a vengeance and, if we gave them the least excuse, they
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took pride in us, bragging to their friends. The only important difference I ever saw between my parents and Joe's was that mine seldom had an excuse to brag and his never had one to scold or punish.
I may have given you the impression that the bad youth of Nevers went to St. Gregory's and the good, to the Tabernacle. That's not true. Holly and Connie invited me to the Tabernacle with them and their parents the morning after the night none of us ever forgot. I never forgot that morning either. I knew everybody would be very happy and very friendly, as if I didn't have the reputation I did. The sisters stood close to me on either side, letting me hold a hymnal for them, although there were enough in the rack for each of us to have his own. They had sweet voices, Holly's was a contralto and Connie's, a soprano, so there was a stereo effect, which I enjoyed despite the triviality of the words. These only served to indicate the emotions that our singing inspired, especially joy and fear, the joy of worshiping the Lord together and the fear of isolation from his community. The voices in each of my ears and the bosoms pressing against each of my upper arms made me feel like a fully accepted member of the congregation. By no means, however, did the joy I shared with Holly and Connie in the Tabernacle eclipse that of the night before.
we sat down and Joe, who was in the choir, went to the pulpit, where he
read the parable of the prodigal son. We are all prodigals, he explained
afterwards. The cycle of temptation, sin and repentance is continuous in
the life of the faithful. The greater the sin, the greater the forgiveness
necessary and yet God always forgives sincerely repentant sinners. No matter
how often we climb the ladder of faith, we will fall and have to start
all over again, if we have the courage to try. For the first time, I realized
that, when my friend raised his voice, it rang like a bell and subjugated
all ears. Even the elephants were flapping theirs. Everybody was listening
with rapt attention and, yes, admiration. Like me, Joe was only seventeen
years old, only a high school senior, a youth whom nearly everybody in
the congregation had known ever since he was a baby. Who would have dared
to claim that he hadn't wailed after his mother squirted him out of the
hole where his father had engendered him? How often had he loaded his diapers
and wailed because he had loaded them? At least once, the little boy must
have wet his bed and the young man, endured the second shame of a slimy
dream. Here were all these people, who knew
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how to live their life, mind their business and stay out of trouble, admiring this young man because he was handsome, had a beautiful voice and expressed himself with an eloquence beyond his years. His notions seemed all the more respectable to them because they had heard them many times before. He made such a powerful impression on them that they overlooked the sincerity of his admission that the preacher needs the sinner as much as the sinner needs the preacher.
Don't get me wrong! I felt no envy, no resentment, not even any condescension. On the contrary, I admired Joe, though rather for the power he exerted over all those people than for the means and the mystery of how he did it. I was even proud of my friend, just as Connie and Holly were proud of me, strange as that may seem and, in fact, seemed to me. Each of them hung on one of my arms guiding me around the crowd outside in the sun and showing me off to friends and disapprovers, although an acute and disinterested observer might have had trouble making this distinction. It occurred to me that they considered me their convert and they were right, unless they misunderstood what they had converted me to. In reality, all three of us were taking Joe seriously: we had fallen last night, we had climbed this morning and we would fall again next Saturday night, except that it cost us none of the suffering that Joe expected. Hypocrisy? Come on! You are slandering innocence. We were harming nobody, not even ourselves.
When I see Holly
or Connie or both, as I do from time to time, we fondly remember that night
on the golf course and that morning in the Tabernacle. They are my most
faithful mistresses, although we seldom spend more than a few days and
nights together at any one time. More attractive than pretty, they have
succeeded in maintaining their charms as the years go by and, more than
anybody else I know, they spare me the loneliness of the single life. Since
none of us has proved capable of a happy marriage, we console each other
with some of the affection and sympathy that we need. Would you like to
know what they looked like? Connie was tall for a girl in those days, her
hair fell to her shoulders and she had a long face with vertical features
that gave her a languid look. She rarely smiled and smiled only slightly,
while laughter, when she laughed, burst suddenly from her throat without
enlivening her features very much. Yet I enjoyed her company and felt as
if I were smiling and laughing for her as well as myself.
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What the two sisters had especially in common was the determination to satisfy their desires, all kinds of desires and whatever the consequences. Shorter than her sister, Holly had eyes that you couldn't ignore when she focused them on you. Call the color emerald if you like, but they burned with a brighter fire than I have ever seen in any stone. You realized what Connie wanted only when she went after it, but you saw Holly's desire in her eyes. Though plain, her face complemented them vivaciously and, like her sister, she had a lean, lithe body with a well-rounded bosom and bottom. In contrast with Connie, she wore her hair short and messy, but the mess was different every time and always charming. It tempted almost everybody to put it in order, a temptation to which I often yielded, while Connie was always putting hers in order herself although she seldom needed to. You have already seen that the sexual appetite of both sisters equaled mine, whether you consider this a curse or a blessing. Please remember that we owed it to our genes.
Joe and I reached the end of the cafeteria line at the same time one day and we sat down together for lunch.
"Trav," he said giving me his spell-casting look. "How would you like to have a perfect Christmas tree?"
"A perfect Christmas tree?""Seven feet tall, full all around, no holes and a scent..." He drew air through his nostrils and smiled his rare, slight smile.
"That sounds pretty good, Joe, but maybe your family should have that tree.""There are two of them. John U'Caffer offered them to me. He was running downstairs when the stairs came loose and fell with him. He broke his leg, so I went and nailed them back up for him. When they built their house, they nailed them to a joist, which finally broke. I replaced it and put a headboard in."
"He tried to pay you and you refused because they barely have enough to get by on.""Like everybody in U County. Once I convinced him that I wasn't going to accept any money, he asked Jenny to show me."
"Show you?""It was a mystery they had cooked up. She drove me up the slope behind their house. When we got to the woods above the caow pasture, she stopped, got out and showed me a stand of Scotch pines."
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"Caow!""That's how they say it."
"I know.""She told me to take as many as I liked. Everybody knows they sell a few dozen trees at the Fossil station across from the Bigbite."
"Which belongs to another John U'Caffer.""John's cousin. There are some others too. Their ancestor, who settled in U County in the eighteenth century, was named John U'Caffer."
"So Jenny talked you into taking one for your family and one for a friend's. Did you tell her I was the friend?""Why not? She was a little surprized, but only because she didn't know we are friends."
That was putting it mildly, but Jenny and John welcomed me when we went to get the trees. The sun shone low in the sky and you could see your breath in the air. The pickup rocked back and forth so hard that I wondered whether the wheels had left the ground. I admired Jenny's spunk and skill in negotiating terrain that would have daunted an offroad amateur. Three years and three kids out of high school had toughened a sweet girl into a resilient woman without bloating her small body, coarsening her crystal voice or yellowing her toothy smile. Her face was still a valentine. She had marked the trees that Joe had chosen with pink ribbons, which she had once used to tie her pigtails, as I remembered and she confirmed. The trees kept Joe's promise. Jenny started to saw one down, but Joe asked for the saw and cut each of them cleanly at the bottom as I held the top. On the way back down the hill, the pickup suddenly rocked so far to the left that we fell against Jenny, who giggled: "Hey! I got men in my truck." Since I was sitting in the middle, I had felt her body beneath me. It seemed so slight and fragile that I thought John could break some bones if he weren't careful.
He hobbled over
to the stairs and shook them to show me how solid they were: "Joe's the
best carpenter in Nevers." Jenny served us coffee and brownies while we
admired the kids: Alice May, Margaret Ann and John Junior whom Jenny hustled
out of the room for a change of diapers. Everything was small and worn,
but neat and clean. John showed us the big bible he had inherited from
his father with the names, births and deaths of all the U'Caffers back
to the couple who first settled in U County in the
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eighteenth century. The conversation turned to the faith, which raised John and Jenny's enthusiasm. What a thrill it was to worship the Lord together with the faithful in the Tabernacle! Jenny and John shared their enthusiasm with me on the assumption that any friend of Joe would agree with them. I'm not sure I didn't, though evidently in a way that would have troubled them. We didn't stay long, but long enough to hear disapproval of U's who succumbed to the temptations against which Reverend Carstens preached, such as alcohol, violence, theft, etc. Jenny teased John about the pride he took in his shotgun, his rifle, and his 45, yet she took pride in his manly virtue. He scoffed at the laws that infringed on his right to shoot birds, animals or even people if they trespassed on his property. The first glimpse of him had persuaded Coach Stillson to put him at right tackle, where he stood like a tree for four seasons. "Oaky," they called him. No opponent could move him, but he couldn't move either, so they tried to run around him. Games were played everywhere on the field except the square yard where he took root. Stillson coached "somewhere else football." Nevers High had cast John and Jenny in the role of an ideal couple.
So you doubt
that U County is the real name of the one in which the town of Nevers is
located? You are right: it's only a part of Endicott County, in which the
U's occupy most of the land and contribute least to the economy. Joe's
father, owner and manager of M. T. Nethercloth, Construction, Alteration
and Repair, did as much repair in U County as he did alteration in Nevers.
He employed his son during vacations and weekends. Nobody seemed to understand
Joe's predilection for the U's and the hills from which they eked their
subsistence. He not only frequented them at school and the Tabernacle,
but also volunteered to do jobs for his father in U County which didn't
appeal to M. T.'s employees. As proud as they were primitive, the U's hated
to ask anybody for anything, but they knew they could count on Joe in a
desperate situation. Imagine a youth who brought babies into this world
and accompanied the dying to the threshold of the next one. A fight I had
with Micah U'Grabby illustrates the influence Joe had in U County. Li'le
Gorilla, as we called him, collared me for seducing Corny U'Britchet, to
whom he had laid claim, though without her consent. More afraid of what
I would say than what I would do, he had one arm around my neck and tightened
it by pulling on it with the other one. All I could see of him were two
big feet, so I stomped on the nearest one. He howled with the pain and
let go. I turned and brought my knee up in his crotch. He was writhing
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his back, holding himself and shouting obscenity. In no time, the U's gathered on one side and the townies on the other. Then Joe appeared in the middle and, as his eyes flashed back and forth, the eyes on both sides dropped and everybody fell silent except for Li'le Gorilla moaning on the ground. "The Lord is offended," said Joe. "We have to ask him for forgiveness. Let's pray together." Everybody lowered his head and shut his eyes. Spreading his arms, Joe raised his eyes to heaven, from which he had apparently just descended. "Forgive us, oh Lord, for we have thought evil thoughts and done evil deeds. Help us to love each other and strive to honor you, to whom we submit in all humility." He paused to inspect his flock and ascertain their submission: "Amen!"
"Amen!"Everybody raised his head, wondered what to do next and shuffled away.
The phone rang
around 2:30 one cold morning and my father called me downstairs to speak
to Joe. "I need your help, Trav, and it will take two or three hours. May
I pick you up in ten minutes?" Having consented without hesitation, I wondered
why even more than why he needed me. Ten minutes later, as he had promised,
he picked me up in one of his father's vans and, heading for the hills,
explained what had happened. Rosy U'Pretz, whose three children were clinging
to her, was keeping Josh at bay with his shotgun. Like many U men, Josh
refrained from drink except for an occasional binge, but then he drank
bad liquor and came home dangerous. Although, at all other times, he treated
his wife and children with touching devotion, alcohol inflamed his passion
to the point that his caresses fell like blows. The very pain and fear
with which they reacted struck him as a betrayal of his love, which reverted
to hatred. Once that had happened, all Rosy had been able to do was to
take the punishment, keep him away from the kids and pray that he would
sober up before he killed her, them and himself. When he failed to come
home with his pay that Friday after work, she waited until she heard the
pickup in the driveway, assembled the kids at the end of the living room
and pointed the two-barrel, which she had loaded, at the front door. Typically,
Josh had burst through it without bothering to open it first or close it
behind him, so the wind had blown the chill factor below zero. When he
saw Rosy and the children, he bellowed and stomped so hard that the floor
shook under their feet. Yet he knew she could shoot: hadn't he taught her
himself? She kept him in an invisible cage, while Lindy, their oldest at
eight, dialed the number on the pad and
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read the message underneath it: "Hello Mr. or Mrs. Nethercloth this is Lindy U'Pretz and it's an emergency may I speak to Joe please" all in one breath. She was going to continue, reading the part for Joe before his mother or father could call him to the phone. Heeding a gesture by Rosy, she waited until Joe said "Hello?" Then she read: "Hello Joe this is Lindy U'Pretz and Momma is pointing a shotgun at Daddy. He is going to kill us if you don't come and talk some sense into his hayd."
It had snowed
two days ago and the snow had melted the next day filling the potholes
on Route 323 with water, which had frozen that night. Joe drove as fast
as he dared. We must have skidded a dozen times, but he managed to control
the skids so that we never slid off the road. Thirty years after his death,
a controversy pitted some of his followers, who considered this drive his
first miracle, against others, who objected that he had the skill and experience
to do it without divine help. I noticed myself that he had learned how
fast he could drive on the curves and slopes without braking. We saw no
other vehicles on a road cluttered on weekdays by tractors, trucks and,
in the afternoon, school buses. The construction of two housing projects
west of Nevers has since resulted in a 45 mph speed zone in front of the
entrances. None of the three stoplights on Through Street existed then.
Driving from our house to the U'Pretzes' in 27 minutes without breaking
the speed limit would necessitate a miracle now, but it certainly wouldn't
have then. Getting out of the van, we heard Josh bellowing; at the front
door, we found him in a frenzy, yelling obscenity at Rosy, stomping on
the floor, hitting and kicking the wall behind him. Like the other U's,
he had hazle eyes, but a fierce glare had replaced their playful twinkle
and his beard, streaked with saliva, writhed like a bush whipped by the
wind. He had torn his shirt open, baring a hairy chest, and forgotten to
rezip his fly after sprinkling his pants, hence an odor. His children were
cringing and wailing around Rosy, who pointed the shotgun at the hairy
chest. Her stony face belied her ample bosom. Who could have doubted that,
if Josh had started to leave the space in which she imprisoned him, she
would have pulled as many triggers as it took to keep him there? Or that,
if she had let her guard down, he would have rushed and killed her? Without
the slightest hesitation, Joe stepped between them. Immediately, the shotgun
swung downwards while Josh fell silent and still, his mouth gaping with
stupor and his body swaying unsteadily.
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"The Lord is offended," said Joe. "We have to ask him for forgiveness. Let's pray together."
As the adults lowered their heads and closed their eyes, the children ran to Joe and threw their arms around him, each at his own level. He put his hands on the lowest heads.
I lowered my head too, but I didn't close my eyes. What was this power he had over adults and children alike? It's healing effect moved me, but I was wary of its motivation. Hadn't the Lord to whom Joe was appealing trapped the U'Pretzes in the poverty that humiliated Josh? Wasn't he responsible for the desperation that drove his faithful creature to drink, thus perverting his love for his family? If the Lord could save the U'Pretzes, why had he afflicted them with despair? To try them for eligibility to eternal life? Then why did he exempt from this trial people who lived in Nevers and not in U County? Maybe he had evolved from the eternal temptation to rid ourselves of responsibility for our worst dilemmas by entrusting them to an ideal abstraction of ourselves. Maybe the only way to real salvation was the realization that it depended on our own efforts. Maybe it could only happen in this life. I wondered whether Joe's solution, however effective it might seem, would merely result in resignation to the fate that had caused this crisis and would cause others. Josh didn't need God, he needed a good job.
As you must have
noticed, Joe mastered the art of extemporaneous prayer inspired by the
current situation. Although he never said anything very original, he said
it better than anybody else and even the Reverend Carstens. His prayer
soothed the U'Pretzes' wounds. Once he had finished, I could do the duties
he had asked me to assume with no greater obstacle to overcome than the
usual aftermath of a binge. I took the teddy bear to the bathroom, got
him to vomit copiously, take a shower and dress in clean pajamas and an
old coat that served as a bathrobe. Then I led him to the kitchen where
all three children ran up to him clamoring to be kissed before going to
bed. Greuze and Diderot would have jerked many a tear from the scene, but
it struck me, Joe and even Rosy as a little funny. Josh took each of the
two smallest ones on an arm and led the others to the boy's and girls'
bedrooms, putting each child in bed, tucking him in and kissing him again.
He began with the smallest and worked his way up to Lindy. As he left the
girls' bedroom, Rosy kissed and hugged him, brought him to the
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kitchen and sat him down for coffee and some hot cereal. Needless to say, the shotgun had disappeared.
On the way back, I congratulated Joe and he thanked me for my help, although my contribution had been secondary. Since he was driving ten miles an hour slower, I had the opportunity to ask him some of the questions I had been asking myself: "Is there any way to keep this from happening again?"
"We can only ask the Lord to show us a way.""Wouldn't it be a steady job that would allow Josh to earn a decent living for his family?"
"There are men who have a steady job which allows them to earn a decent living, but it doesn't keep them from getting drunk and beating their wives.""You don't think Josh would be one of those, do you?"
"Only the Lord knows that.""There are men who don't believe in your God... or even any God at all."
"Who don't drink and beat their wives?""Yes."
"Do we know everything else they do? Do we know everything else Josh does? Only the Lord knows that. Besides..." Joe glanced at me: "How well do we know the Lord?""Not very well."
Joe smiled: "No, not very well. But I know him a little better than you do. That's why I pray for you.""I don't give you much encouragement. Maybe you should pray for Josh instead of me."
"I pray for you because you don't give me much encouragement.""There isn't anything I can do for you."
"You did something for me tonight, but I would rather you had done it for the Lord.""Why do you want me to do things for the Lord?"
"Why are you my friend? I don't know, but I know you are because I want you to have an eternal happy life.""Don't you think I would have more trouble earning an eternal happy life than Josh has just earning a happy life?"
"No one can earn an eternal happy life. It's a gift the Lord gives some of his creatures who deserve it no more than others. The gift inspires
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them to do good deeds for him. Maybe you didn't sober Josh up for me, but rather for the Lord.""I wouldn't even know it?"
"No. You congratulated me on what I did tonight. Would you have congratulated me if you thought I had done it for myself? The only difference between us and the other creatures is that we can fool ourselves."This remark took my breath away. Once I got it back, I opened my mouth, but no speech came out.
Finally Joe laughed: "I wonder why the Lord struck you dumb."He had so much prestige during our senior year that he eclipsed the quarterback on the football team and the highest scorer on the basketball team. An unexpected overlap between the annual distribution of letters and trophees, and a performance of Hamlet in which Joe played the leading part went unresolved. The coaches insisted that their ceremony would end before the second act of the play. I may have been the only student who attended the ceremony just to see if anybody else left when the time came for the first act. When I stood, however, others did too and our departure consternated the coaches and athletes. The young men looked as if they had lost the season and the older ones, their job. Why the baseball team hadn't even received their letters yet! On the other hand, Hamlet got enthusiastic applause every time the curtain came down and, when the actors took their bows, the god of good raised the roof. Although I hadn't read the play, his Hamlet just didn't seem very tragic to me, so I did read the play, which surprized everybody, and I discovered a self-doubting hero. Sitting beside Joe at lunch, I congratulated him again and started to raise the issue.
"Thank you, Trav," he interrupted me, "but Shakespeare wouldn't have approved."
"That's what I was going to ask you.""I'm not very good at self-doubt."
"You seemed to be running the show.""I kept telling myself that the Lord was running it. I didn't get that across."
"Do you think that's what Shakespeare meant?""Trav, if you studied just a little harder, you would learn an awful lot."
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It wasn't just in shop that Joe got straight A's. The only other grades he got in four years were some A pluses which didn't count officially, although he took the hardest courses offered, such as Latin and math. I took no more Latin than I had to for college entrance, but I liked math and got Bs, my best grades. Joe assured me that I had a greater aptitude for the discipline than he did. While he urged me to work harder and I promised I would, I had an even greater aptitude for getting by on the least possible effort. There were some who admired me for it, including a few athletes. During our last semester at Nevers High, both Joe and I took English from Ursula Overshaw or Uh! Oh! as her fellow teachers called her and as we called her out of earshot. Braque, whose bronzes she wore, might have painted her as a bundle of sharp angles: her nose, her chin, her bosom, her elbows, her knees and, even sharper than the rest, her tongue. I don't know, on the other hand, whether it was her skull or her hair that flattened at the top like a roof. Sitting behind her desk, she would call us up one by one to stand beside her desk, recite and answer her questions. Since each student reacted to this ordeal in a different way, she adjusted her questioning to suit him and kept the rest of the class entertained. She called me up more often and for a longer time than the others, because she liked to demonstrate that I was lazy and not dumb. My reputation also intrigued her, although she never mentioned it. "Now take your hands out of your pockets and stand up straight," she would chide me. A few minutes later: "As soon as you took your hands out of your pockets, you started scratching the back of your head with one of them." A few minutes later: "Trav, You look like a statue in the Vatican Museum! Why don't you just let your hands hang at your sides?" All three of these remarks made the class laugh, but the last one had them in convulsions. Even Joe smiled.
Uh! Oh! assigned set the scene for some of the most unforgettable interrogations
in front of her class. The subject of the last one she gave us challenged
our ingenuity even more cleverly than the others. Each of us had to describe
the person he liked least, explain why he disliked him and then admire
his virtues, however rare. Particularly acute at our age, the difficulty
of the latter requirement escaped none of us. Yet I wonder if Uh! Oh! didn't
intend that assignment for Joe and me in particular, though for entirely
different reasons. Intrigued, I addressed my problem with a zeal that surprized
everybody and solved it by assembling the vices and virtues of greatest
concern to me in a hermaphrodite named
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Vicey Virtue. This character offended me by trying to subject me to morals that suited only "it". If it nibbled its own lips, that would be a virtue, but, if I nibbled a girl's lips, that would be a vice. The delight I took in describing the relief and texture of such lips had the class in stitches. Vicey nibbled its own with a pleasure that incited me to follow the example, without which I wouldn't have dared. This remark provoked the loudest laughter of all.
"So you admire the virtue in Vicey even though Vicey considers it a vice in you?"
"Yes, M'am.""Are vice and virtue interchangeable according to the person concerned?"
"Yes, M'am, but some people would disagree." I was thinking of Joe."Stop scratching your head."
"Yes, M'am.""I'm not one of them."
"M'am?""One of those who disagree."
To my surprize, Joe later told me that he agreed with me too. Uh! Oh! called him up after me. The only person he didn't like was the devil. Uh! Oh! who had urged us to use sources and acknowledge them, praised him for the ideas he had borrowed from the devil's conversation with Luther. He resented the devil's vice of temptation, but he saw virtue in the very charm he gave evil, a genuine gift of God perverted by him. This perversion challenged us to seek the untainted grace of God himself.
"All right," said Uh! Oh! but is the devil a person?"
"When I was a little boy, I had a black leotard with horns on my head and a tail with an arrowhead at the end of it. I ran all over town waving a fork and demanding tricks or treats.""You were playing a role. There's a difference between a character and a person."
"Yes, M'am. I think the devil is a character. He personifies temptation in all of us. He tempts Trav with those beautiful lips, but he didn't make them. God did."