Chapter Four: The Mayor

EXCERPT

From the new nonfiction book Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide?: (‘Cause I Need More Room for My Plasma TV), released this spring by Zondervan Books. Click here to read the interview with Spears.

By KAREN ZACHARIAS SPEARS

A red Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner sits out underneath the Live Oak. Around the corner weathered shoes, some covered in cobwebs, hang from a metal post. A wad of aluminum in a Ziploc bag, half-filled with water, hangs above the man’s head as he sits on his porch, watching television.

“It’s an insect repellent,” he says, referring to the bag hanging.

That’s important information to heed down in swamp territory, where West Nile virus is more than just a story about some other poor fellow—it’s a real threat.

The television is tuned to the “Price is Right.” It’s the new version with Drew Carey as host. Carey looks slimmer in black-and-white.

They say the Mayor’s kin once built an entire fence out of empty beer cans and whiskey bottles. Now that’s the kind of border patrol project that could amuse a person. Mayor wears a white T-shirt and two days’ growth of gray stubble. This man who really does live at the end of a dusty red road has hair that is graying now, but he’s still lean as the boy he once was, back when he belonged to Uncle Sam.

He joined the Army for no particular reason. Just something to do. Crossed his mind sometime between high school and the future, so he marched down to the recruiting office and give the fellow there his name and Social Security number in exchange for a one-way ticket to Fort Polk. They said if a boy could survive basic training in Louisiana he’d do just fine in the jungles of Vietnam. That wasn’t always the case, but that’s the way they told it, and there was some that took it as the Gospel.

Lucky for him, they quit that war before needing him. He never had to use a gun for anything but killing squirrels. Mayor grew bored with the Army and all that marching and yes-sir, no-sir rigmarole.

“I was looking for a distraction,” he says, reasoning that’s why he started attending the Bible church in town. “Or maybe I was just searching for an audience.”

One thing he’s not too clear on was whether he went there looking for Jesus, or if he was much more interested in the girls with the freckled skin, girls with skin white as cotton, and girls with skin brown as bread crust. Girls had long captured the Mayor’s interest in a way that matters of the spirit did not.

“Army people bored me. I liked going to church. The people there were good to me,” Mayor says.

Mayor is not his name, or a title, but more a designation by default. When you live in deep woods, you learn to govern yourself and the critters that answer your call.

The men in the church, the fathers of all those pretty girls, took a special liking to this quiet-spoken fellow with the easy smile. He had all the outward appearances of a good Christian man. He held his tongue and wasn’t prone to anger. Any drinking he did, he did elsewhere. He was at church nearly every time the doors were open. It hadn’t taken Mayor long to figure out that any meal served at church was bound to include fried chicken, done right, and a slice of peach pie. Beat that Army grub all to heck.

After awhile, the folks at church asked Mayor if maybe he’d be interested in giving a talk from the pulpit. If he could give a word about all that Jesus had done in his life? So he climbed right up behind that wooden podium, stared out over that congregation of kindly people, then smiled at them with those happy eyes of his and began telling them a story.

He doesn’t remember now what he said to them. His recall is sometimes bleary-eyed, the edges of his memory burnt by too much whiskey. But he remembers that those church people liked what he had to say that day because they asked him back again, and again.

He accepted their invitations because he was a born storyteller, and they were an attentive audience. The only time they ever interrupted him was to shout out “Amen” or “Say it again.” But that wasn’t often since this was a church of white people mostly; their shouting was something they saved for the ballgames.

They say if you really seek after Jesus, he’ll be found. Makes a person wonder if life is some kind of cosmic hide-n-go-seek game. Jesus finds the best place to hide and we have to hunt through the darkest of forests to find him. He snickers when we get tripped up. Or when we walk within three inches of him and yet fail to see him, crouching there at our feet.

Mayor never could sort all that out. Why people would waste their lives searching for a God intent on not being found. So he gave it up. Figured life’s too short to chase after God when there were women to be had. Women willing to be caught in broad daylight.

That’s not exactly the sort of Revelation that the folks at church wanted to be hearing from Mayor, though, so he did his best to give them the stories they wanted to hear. Love stories of a different sort.

He told them about life in the military and about life in the deep woods. How living underneath oaks as old as this country put matters into perspective for him. He read to them from the wisdom of Solomon. He had a good reading voice, everybody said so. Just like that Graham boy out of North Carolina, he made everything sound like poetry. Not in that same-song rhyming way that can make the ear drums throb, but in that soothing fashion of a mother’s melody.

When Mayor preached, people were inspired. They went away from Sunday service ready to rise up on Monday and get on with the chore of life. He told them stories that stayed with them clean through Saturday and sometimes beyond. He was funny. Still is. How else do you explain a wad of aluminum keeping mosquitoes away?

“I researched it on the Internet,” he says. “It’s a pesticide-free bug repellent.”

He might be right. There were no noticeable skeeters that day.

Few people would invite Mayor to church nowadays. One look at him and a person just knows he isn’t the church-going type, not unless the church has more than a coffee bar inside. He’s long past the age where he needs to go looking for pretty girls. He’s wise enough now to know nearly every girl is as pretty as the next one, if you study them the right way. And God is only a word he uses when he’s riled up or trying to be animated.

But Mayor remembers without any hesitation that day he gave his last sermon.

“I was standing up there at that podium. I don’t know what I was saying, but whatever it was, when I looked out over the people, they were crying. Men and women alike. Crying.”

Mayor leaned forward, elbows on his knees. He looked up from beneath the shade of thicket brows. “That scared me. Seeing how much power I had over those people. “

Cuss words crossed his mind and his lips as he recalled the power of that moment.

He walked out the doors of that church and never went back.

***

I’ve thought a lot about what Mayor told me that summer’s day as we sat out on his porch daring skeeters to come hither. Those that don’t know him might consider him aimless, but they’d be wrong. Mayor lives a well-intentioned, albeit, unconventional life. He paints portraits on canvases and sometimes murals on the bathroom walls. He reads books and is a bestselling author himself. He still likes women in all shapes and colors.

But there are those who look on his outward appearance and sum him up as a man in need of the saving grace of Jesus. They’d look at the whiskey glass sitting next to his laptop or the vacuum cleaner sitting in tall grass and they’d take pity on him, or worse, judge him as a man lost. But that day, listening to his stories, I realized something: Mayor is a man of integrity. I fought an urge to throw my arms around his neck and kiss him on the cheek. He’ll probably be disappointed to hear that. Mayor likes such gratitude.

He could have decided to take advantage of those people weeping there in that church, but he didn’t. He could have used his skill as a storyteller, his natural charm and boyish good looks to manipulate others. He could have led those people down roads of gold, and stuffed his pockets full of their shekels while they followed him merrily. Many a crooked evangelist and pastor and bestselling author has done that very thing.

But Mayor had more respect for those good-hearted people, and maybe more respect for the God that created us all, than to use his skills for his own selfish ambition and financial gain.


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