About the Author:
SONNY BREWER owns Over the Transom Bookshop in Fairhope and is board chairman of the nonprofit Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts. He is the former editor in chief of Mobile Bay Monthly; he also published and edited Eastern Shore Quarterly magazine, edited Red Bluff Review, and was founding associate editor of the weekly West Alabama Gazette. Brewer is the editor of the acclaimed annual three-volume anthology of Southern writing, Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
· ONE ·
Henry walked out of the doctor’s office and the drumming rain that had begun to fall went straight through his thin white hair, wetting his head and sending a chill down his back. Instead of putting on his hat, he placed the flat of his palm on his forehead and stroked the dampness accruing there. He sat down on the edge of the porch, quickly soaking the seat of his pants.
He rubbed his hands together and massaged the pain in his knuckles, then lifted his left foot and took hold of the heel of his boot and tugged it off. He straightened his back, took a breath, and in a moment crossed his right leg over stiffly and removed the other boot. Henry decided, because it was his option to do so, that he would abandon his boots. He paired them up evenly there on the boards.
Henry could not remember when last he had walked barefoot in the rain, mud squishing up between his toes. He believed it was Black Elk, or maybe Chief Seattle, who had said that the man who always wears his moccasins thinks the earth is covered with leather. Henry looked at his boots and wondered how long they would sit before someone took them. They were good Wellingtons and not badly worn, and he thought someone would be surprised to find a pair of boots on the porch at Dr. Belton’s place.
Henry planted his palms on his knees, caressed the wet brown twill trousers, and from those points levered himself to standing. He would let his feet know that this piece of earth was covered with mud, and thought perhaps they’d enjoy knowing that.
He tilted his face downward and was lifting his rumpled and sweat-stained felt hat when he heard his name called and, looking up, saw a horse and wagon drawing near the plank sidewalk in front of which he stood. Twenty years earlier in Nampa, Idaho, the first automobile had been delivered on a flat train car. Now in 1925 the tables were turned and only a few stubborn sorts still went about in horse-drawn carriages or wagons. This driver was among them. He sat alone on the buckboard seat, the long leather reins drawn tight in his gloved hand, making to stop his dappled gray Appaloosa. With his left hand the driver pulled back hard on the brake shaft.
“Whoa! Whoa back there, Bo,” the driver said.
The horse slowed his walk, its hooves sucking at the muddy street, but did not come to a stop until the wagon was dead even with Henry. This side street was one of four remaining unoiled or unpaved streets in Nampa, and some of Dr. Belton’s patients said perhaps the dust and mud was unsanitary, but the doctor disagreed. He did not like automobiles himself, and he owned the entire block, so the town council took their pavement and their oiling elsewhere for the time being. That kept at least some of the cars away, and the smell of oil out of the air.
“How do, Brother Webb?” Henry nodded to the man in the wagon, then raised his arm, hat in hand, and slowly wiped the top of his head with his shirtsleeve, depositing his hat there before dropping his hand to his side. His arms hung straight, his fingers loose.
“Did you pray up this rain, Will?” Henry was making small talk, postponing for a moment at least what was coming. But the Reverend William Webb had been dealing with people of all stripes for forty years, and Henry knew this preacher’s practiced eye would discern that the news from the doctor was bad. Like as not, Henry’s two boys had made such a prediction to the preacher man. Both his sons went to this preacher’s church, Harvey, the oldest, a regular. We might as well go ahead and get on down to the quick on this one, Henry thought.
“Henry,” the preacher said, rain dripping from the brim of his hat, “Thomas and Harvey have been telling me something’s bad wrong with you. Said you’ve been coughing and spitting up blood and you were coming in to see the doctor this morning. I watched you go in there, and I’ve been lying in wait like a highwayman for you to come out. Now, I—”
“Dr. Belton said it’s consumption, Will,” Henry said evenly. “Tuberculosis. He’s given me a year to live. Maybe not that long. Maybe a little more.” Henry stood, like a patient man in line at a bank, his arms at his side. He was a tall man, just at six feet, and medium-built, his shoulders still square and his spine still straight. Nothing about him projected grave illness, and he could have passed for a man of fifty, though he was sixty-seven. His clear blue eyes locked on the dark eyes of the preacher, darker still under the soaked brim of his hat.
William Webb shook his head, then bent his face downward. When Will looked up, he said, “I am sorry, Henry. This is a hard one, my friend.” The preacher wrapped the reins around the brake, slid across the wet seat, taking hold of the seat back to help steady his rise. “If you’ll let me, I’ll pray with you, Henry. Just a brief word with the Lord.” A big redbone hound bellied out from underneath the porch, startling the horse into a quick forward step, snatching the wagon. The preacher lurched and fell back, sitting down hard on the wagon seat. “Aw, Bo, damn your hide!”
Henry smiled. “Keep your seat, Reverend.” He watched the old hound trot across the street, going diagonally toward the alley that would take him behind the Melton Hotel, and perhaps a scrap of bread raked off a breakfast plate. The morning fell darker, and there was a low roll of thunder toward the hills east of town, and the rain fell harder. Henry turned his collar up. “I’ll let you know when I need a prayer lifted on my behalf, though I do appreciate your intent, Brother Webb.”
“Can I at least give you a ride back out to your place? This muck’ll ruin your boots.” The preacher let his eyes travel slowly down to Henry’s long bare feet. “Well, that is, when you put your boots back on. I’ve got to go in that direction, Henry, and I’d not think a thing of carting you to your front gate.”
“But it’s to the Pearly Gates you truly want to cart me. I have known you for too long, Will. You’ll never give up. You would talk all the way and make half a dozen altar calls.”
“I expect there’d not be time for half a dozen entreaties mean- ingful enough to rescue that starving soul of yours.” Preacher Webb propped a booted foot on the buckboard’s dash, caught the wet and wilted brim of his hat and tilted it back a bit for a better look at Henry James Stuart. “I worry about you, Henry, staying away from the church like we’ve got out a quarantine sign. Both your sons come as often as we open the doors. Don’t you think Molly would want you in the church with her boys?”
Henry braced his shoulders and closed his hands, though not tight into fists. “Molly did want me to go to church. With her. And I went, glad to go for the pleasure it seemed to give to her. But, Will, Molly is dead three years now, and—”
“And you have not darkened the door of my church one time since she passed, Henry.”
“Nor shall I, Will. We don’t really have to talk about this again, do we?”
“But do you not fear for your soul now that you’ll soon face the Almighty?” The preacher sat straighter, still holding up the brim of his hat.
“My face has never turned away from God, nor my ear ever inclined away from his counsel. You do not stand between me and my creator, Will Webb. It seems a prideful thing to suggest, and a touch arrogant.”
Preacher Webb took his foot from the dash and banged it down on the puddled floorboard, leaning forward to unwrap the reins. “And you are the stubbornest man in all of Idaho, Henry. My prayer is that you get a chance to argue your name onto Heaven’s roll, for you could argue the horns off a goat.” The rain quickly eased and almost stopped, and both men looked briefly toward the sky, as if to find the cause of the lull.
“Since you have got it going this morning, Will, let me argue with you for half a minute,” Henry said, drawing his bushy white eyebrows together in a frown. “Let me tell you how I believe that all the names of all the people in all the ages are written forever on that roll you speak of. How I believe that when our Maker claims what is his at the birth of a child and duly records it in his Book of Life, that little one becomes a divine property that neither foe nor force nor deed can steal.”
Henry lifted his hands, a questioning gesture. “Can’t you get your preacher’s heart to believe that what was ever once God’s is always God’s? It’s simple to me. There is nothing that can oppose the creative force of the universe. There is nowhere to get to, Will, if you never truly left. It’s because you and others of your ilk cannot even approach such an idea that I have no need of what you’re selling at the churchhouse, Will.”
“This is your ‘Everybody Gets Back to Heaven’ sermon. I’ve heard it before, Henry.” The reverend held the reins one in each hand, and was bent forward slightly with his forearms resting on his heavy thighs. “Come on, Henry. What a load of bull. I don’t know how they graduated you from Mount Union. Must’ve been an off year for them in their divinity department to turn you loose among good Baptists.”
Henry shook his head, but smiled. He had first laid out his theology to Will Webb on one of their fishing afternoons down at a favorite spot on Lake Lowell. It was after Aldus Sansing, a man well known to Henry, had been cut down with a double-barreled shotgun during a robbery and had died without officially “coming to the Lord” on a Sunday morning. Aldus never went there. Not for weddings and not for funerals.
His murderer was soon caught, and while he waited in jail to be hanged, he found his salvation, presided over and attested to by Reverend Orlen Estes. A grammar-schooler, thought Henry, could see something wrong with the killer getting his writ to enter Heaven while a good man had been murdered and tossed to Hell.
Ruminating upon that, in a moment’s insight, Henry had come to believe that if indeed there was a “next step” after this trail is quit, then all and everyone is privileged to walk that walk. Henry believed he saw clearly the advance of all things. He knew that a boy who takes early to drinking and carousing is not left in some box marked 1907, but gets himself along to 1915 and a box labeled “Loving Husband/Good Father.” But then he might run off with the neighbor’s wife the next year. And that was that. And it did not matter a whit, for all manner of things would in time be set right.
And Henry was at ease with his belief, but Henry’s first son Harvey had told him to his face that he was hell-bound. Neither he nor his friend Will Webb could cotton to a simple line that all persons would perfect the soul awarded them, even if it takes eons. Neither could seem to comprehend the absence of a devil that could actually oppose and defeat the maker of the universe. For Henry, the debate was ended. And now, it seemed, he’d be the first of the three to discover the truth of his religion. And that was well enough for Henry, who in apprehending the mix of sadness and exasperation on Will’s face found his thoughts turning to Tolstoy. Henry had been read- ing and rereading the novels of Tolstoy since he was in his twenties, and had long studied his nonfiction. Henry knew that Tolstoy was a deeply spiritual man, and yet was excommunicated and therefore buried without the help of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some in Tolstoy’s church, certainly his family and friends, must have been nonplussed by his disdain for organized religion.
The Reverend William Webb slid back across the wagon’s board seat, making a swipe at the spot he’d just vacated. “Here, then. Put your boots back on, Henry, and hop up here and let me give you a ride home. Come on now, before this rain takes up again. I’ll not preach a word in the direction of your black heart.” The preacher gave an exaggerated wink. “While we’re riding you can tell me about this consumption, or what have you, that’s fool enough to think it can kill you.” Will paused, removed his wet right glove to accept the hand of his friend and help him onto the wagon seat, then said, “It’s not catching, I guess. Consumption, I mean.”
That got another smile out of Henry. He shook his head. “It’s not the contagious strain of the illness.” Henry motioned with his hand to the preacher. “I’ll walk, Will. And without my fine boots. It will be excellent practice for those long barefoot walks up in the clouds. But I do thank you for the kindness of your offer.”
“Now who is the arrogant one? Where do you come by the certainty that it’ll not be red-hot coals you’ll be treading upon, Henry? Down there!” And Will Webb gave a thumbs-down toward the ground. Both men fell into laughter for a brief moment until Henry gave a deep raspy cough and turned to take from his unbuttoned shirt pocket a clean fold of handkerchief and coughed into that, putting it into his trousers back pocket when normal breathing had come again to him. Unguarded, muscles in the preacher’s face now sagged downward around his eyes and mouth and the sadness was plain to see. “I am mighty sorry, Henry. Mighty sorry.” Will shifted both reins to his left hand and held his open right palm out toward his friend. “May the peace of the Lord be with you, Henry.”
Henry drew a finger to his hat. Will gestured a final time to the seat beside him. Henry shook his head no. Will nodded and slapped the reins. Bo pulled the wagon into the sloppy, gray-mudded street, and Henry saw Will draw himself down against the cold rain.
Henry spoke into the soft sigh of the morning. “And also with you, Brother Webb.”
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