(A Novel Excerpt)
By DALE NEAL
Of all the things Ruth Wilder prided herself on in her largely blessed life, family was of course high on her list, ranking only a little below her perfect Sunday school attendance for the past 44 years.
So on the rare Sundays when they visited Beaverdam Baptist, Royce and Eva set the alarm to rise at dawn, rousting Dean out of bed, bolting down breakfast, and dashing in and out of the shower, everybody dressed and into the car, driving the 45 miles from Atlamont to Zebulon County, off the main highway and threading the hairpin twists over the gap, then descending the 10 miles of curves down into the bottomlands of Beaverdam where Ruth sat, waiting on the front porch in her best dress, clutching her black clasp purse on her lap, rocking impatiently for the past hour.
“I knew you would be late. You have always been since the day you were born.” Ruth never failed to remind her son that he had been born on a Saturday in a fierce labor that wouldn’t let her get out of bed the next day for church.
“We got plenty of time, Mama.” Royce kissed the tightly permed top of her aging head as he helped her into the back seat of the Mercedes, then drove the quarter mile to the church.
They took their places in Ruth’s usual pew, ushered past the watchful eyes of the regulars already seated, trailed by the whispers of women hissing into the jug ears of their deaf husbands. “Them’s Ruth’s kin. Jake’s boy and his family from over in Altamont.”
This morning, for this special occasion, Ruth wore a pretty lavender-colored polyester dress, dug out of the closet from last Easter. As soon as she took her seat, she started digging around in her purse for her tithe and her tissues. Ruth knew she would weep when her perfect Sunday school attendance was again rightly recognized.
Eva reached out to squeeze Dean’s restless leg to keep him from kicking the pew ahead of them.
Good, Royce thought. If he had to suffer through church, so could his delinquent son, flushed and steaming in his blue hopsack blazer, off in his own world.
When Dean was little, Eva had let him take crayons and paper to services at St. Mary’s. While the Episcopalians rose and knelt according to traditional forms, Dean squatted on the plush velvet kneeler and used the polished seat of the pew for his desk, copying his versions of the stained glass windows overhead. Growing older, he had to sit up like the rest, but he’d drawn his secret comic books on the order of service held inside the worn cover of the Book of Common Prayer. But even Episcopalians could indulge their youth only so long. Now officially in high school, Dean was expected to act like an adult, pay attention like a regular grownup, be bored out of his expanding skull.
“Don’t be so jumpy,” Eva whispered, trapping his scribbling fingers, interlacing them with hers. He had been practicing his painting, memorizing his moves, angles and arabesques, quick cuts and curlicues, against the nap of his worsted trousers.
At the ringing of a tinny bell, Ruth leaned around Eva and tapped his knee. “That’s means it’s Sunday school,” she whispered. “Go on with the young’uns.”
“Just like catechism class,” Eva reassured him. “Just behave.”
The young people filed from the sanctuary into a classroom behind the pulpit, leaving a handful of widows and aged farmers for the adult class. Eva steeled herself for these Sunday visits to an alien denomination. “Mama’s almost got used to you being Episcopalian,” Royce had teased her on the drive over this morning, “though she still thinks you all pray to the Queen of England.”
“Funny,” she said at his familiar joke, screwing tighter the smile that she wore around her mother-in-law.
Eva had grown up in Sunday schools and church services, living in a succession of ever smaller rectories as her father kept finding himself shepherd of increasingly thinner flocks. These Baptists made those chapels look like the Vatican. No stained glass, no organ, let alone the embroidered kneelers she was used to at St. Mary’s. They sang a few rusty hymns, made long-winded prayers and stumbled through a reading of Judges, an object lesson from the crude customs of an ancient tribe given to stoning its wayward women and disrespectful sons. Royce kept squirming on the pew burnished by decades of Baptist backsides. “Be still.” She elbowed his ribs. “You’re worse than Dean.”
Nothing had changed in the church in the 20 years since Royce had left home and the stifling services here. He saw the handwriting on the wall. A painting behind the pulpit depicted a disembodied hand writing across an unfurled scroll: “Where will you spend eternity?”
Royce had no ready answer to the terrible question, sucking his lip bloodless between his gapped front teeth. The other painting on the back wall was no better: a portrait of the Savior, with his heavenward gaze under thick eyelashes. Shave off the beard and his brunet locks bore a resemblance to Lucy Greene’s.
Royce couldn’t help himself. Every time he went to church, he thought of sex. He used to sit beside Lucy Greene, daring damnation in the eyes of the Lord, their thighs touching, her fingers tiptoeing up and down the corduroy of his trousers. The Wilders and Greenes countenanced this, since it was commonly known they were courting and likely would be married before any baby or wrongdoing could show. The pew was just another station, like the swing on Lucy’s front porch where they sat most Saturday evenings and talked about their life after high school, how they would always be happy in the world they knew in Beaverdam.
Royce couldn’t imagine bearing his life if he had stayed in Beaverdam, sitting in this stifling sanctuary Sunday after Sunday. He would have hanged himself like that farmer whose story of failure haunted them all.
When the offering plate passed down their pew, Royce set the bowl in his lap and raised one haunch while he fumbled for his wallet. The only thing worse than suffering through church was having to pay for the pain. Handing the plate over, Royce was surprised to see that the man who took his money wasn’t his father. Each Sunday, Jake Wilder had passed around the offering plate he’d cut from a walnut bough and turned on a lathe. He patrolled the center aisle, counting in his head what went in the collection, who had tithed and who had not. “Let every day provide for itself and God send Sunday,” he used to say. Now, the old man would never see Royce slipping in a guilty five bucks instead of the five cents he used to grudgingly give as a kid.
The preacher took the pulpit to call the names of those with Sunday school attendance in the past year, starting with the youngest children and on up through the adults, saving the best for last. “And of course, Mrs. Ruth Wilder has her 40th anniversary of perfect attendance,” the preacher said. “Miss Ruth, we got you a special fruit basket.”
Ruth waved to the applause she’d been waiting for all year, but her moment was short lived. The piano sounded an off-key chord. The congregation staggered to their feet, reaching for the hymnals in the racks behind the pews. They sang halfheartedly in the heat, a choir of apathetic angels, then took their seats, feeling their mortal bottoms numbed through the duration of the sermon.
“Jesus is coming,” the preacher wailed. “Sinner, are you ready?”
But if Jesus was really coming, any minute now as the preacher said, why did they keep the doors closed? Imagine a knock. How many would believe it was Christ’s own knuckle, softly rapping?
Royce had quit listening to this stuff years ago and used the time to tally columns of mental figures in his head. Paying off all his debt, his bills, amortizing mortgage rates, divvying up dividends from stocks he could buy when he was well-to-do. He wanted to climb to Royce’s Rock, the cliff where the ravens roosted, that his father had willed to him. All the good land and the tobacco allotment of course had gone with the bulk of the farm to his mother, but Royce was grateful his sire had remembered him in his will.
Landrum could ask all he wanted for the land, but no one could build there. It was more of a view, something you would buy for a development on the Buckeye on the other side of Beaverdam Road, but that all belonged to his uncle Dallas, who had no more interest in turning loose of his holdings than in voting for a Republican copperhead, as the old Yellow Dog Democrat called those partisans in the bitter inbred politics of Zebulon County.
The altar call came and faltered. Nobody came forward to be saved, no backslider slipped forward into good graces. Thank God, Royce thought.
Dean was ready to bolt, until his mother caught his elbow. “Please, wait for the rest of us.”
“Quarter past twelve.” Royce eyed his watch. “Mama, you ready?”
But Ruth sat down again to dig through her purse. “Thought I had some money in here somewhere. Need to make my tithe.”
“Mama, the offering already came around. We’ll give it on the way out.” Royce helped her up. His mother seemed so frail that too rough a touch might snap some bone in her loose skin.
“Why, Royce Wilder. You didn’t think you could run off without saying hi?” Lucy Greene Gudger must have run halfway down the aisle to hug him.
“Where’s Junior?” Royce searched the sanctuary for the good old boy Lucy had snagged after Royce had shed her and fled Beaverdam.
“Sleeping in today. Worked a late shift last night. Royce, you’re a sight for sore eyes.”
Eva prodded his ribs before Lucy and her cheap scent of soap released him.
“Hey, Lucy” Eva showed her forced smile. Royce could tell she was trying her best not to stare at Lucy’s disfigurement, but she couldn’t help but mark every wen, sty, goiter and glass eye, each birthmark and amputation evident among the backwards populace of Beaverdam, marred from birth or maimed in the barnyard. In Lucy’s case, it was the missing tip of her ring finger of her left hand, the sawed-off stump ringed with her wedding band.
“You must not know what to think of our little old church.” Lucy laid on the drawl a little thick, Royce noticed.
“Oh, not at all, I rather enjoy the singing,” Eva said.
“You ought to come more often.”
“I usually go to church in Altamont. St. Mary’s. I try to take Royce, but he won’t go.”
“Episcopal. Too fancy for me,” Royce said.
“Dean didn’t give you any trouble in Sunday school, did he?” Eva patted her son’s slumped shoulder.
“’Course not. This is one sharp son you’ve reared here. Though we did have a bit of a discussion about Genesis.”
“Dinosaurs didn’t ride on the ark with Noah,” Dean hissed, continuing the argument he had waged in class.
“I know in a fancy school they teach all sorts of things—evolution and all—we don’t get way back here. But no, we straightened him out. You come and see us soon, honey. We’ll talk more.”
To Dean’s evident horror, she patted his sleeve with the disfigured hand, that missing knucklebone.
“We’ve got to be going now, Lucy. Good to see you. Say hi to Junior for us.” Royce prodded his mother forward.
The aisle filled with the faithful and the smell of talcum powder and strong soap, cigarette smoke, sweat, manure, aromas of the barnyards and woodstoves. Royce could see daylight over the threshold, freedom ahead, but not until he passed another reminder of his past, those dents in the double doors, the shadowy indentations his uncle had once pressed his little fingers into.
“There, feel that? We’re talking pure meanness.” Dallas showed him where the hatefully flung rocks had scarred the wood. “Sure as you and me are standing here, she stood yonder and stoned the house of the Lord, if you can believe it. Dog‑cussed us all on a Sunday morning.”
She was Wanda McRae, the witch woman who lived over the ridge from the Wilders, at the end of a long dirt road Royce had been up only once in his life—a secret he’d never shared with Dallas or his daddy or anyone.
Ruth balked at the door. “I forgot my fruit basket.”
They had come this far, and Royce didn’t want to have to wade into the crowd and face Lucy again. “You’ve got a whole bushel of apples at the house. Why not let someone have it that’s truly needy.”
“I am needy. I’m a widow woman and I need a fruit basket. Dean, go fetch it for me.”
Royce escorted his mother to the car, her pumps shuffling through the loose gravel, her weight leaning on his arm. He suspected she walked slower on Sundays to keep up appearances as a church elder. At home, she shed the fake feebleness and rushed from room to room, chore to chore. She was turning 82 next March, but she only acted her age when she had an appreciative audience.
Ruth lowered herself into the back of the Mercedes while Royce held the door. “Seat’s hot! I told you to park in the shade!”
“It was all shade when we got here, Mama. I’ll turn on the air conditioning.”
“Never mind. I’ll just crack the window.” Ruth always complained about the smell of air conditioning, saying she just as soon have wind with no conditions on her face.
“Boy, what’s your hurry? You act like a Methodist scared of getting dunked by a bunch of Baptists.” A rough, familiar hand grabbed the back of Royce’s neck.
“Hey, Dallas. How you doing?”
“I’m just an old mailman with a message. You better come to church more often.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Royce said.
“Morning, Ruth. I see you got this pagan in a pew today.” Dallas Rominger tipped his jaunty fedora to his older sister. The green hat matched the plaid of his jacket, which must have hung in Dallas’ wardrobe since the Eisenhower administration.
The old bachelor draped his arm around Eva’s shoulder, smooching her temple. “Um, you sure smell good today. Royce, come smell her hair.”
“Who poked you in the eye?” Eva tilted Dallas’ chin. “Royce, did you see this?”
Royce crouched to look beneath his uncle’s hat brim where a sty glowered like a coal in his left eye.
“Pretty, ain’t it? If it don’t go away soon, I’ll have to do something to keep from scaring the ladies. Maybe a black pirate patch?”
“You’ll need a peg leg.” Ruth called from the back seat. “Show ’em what else you done.”
Dallas hiked his trousers, showing a scabbed shinbone and a purple bruise.
“What in the world?” Eva asked.
“Fell through the loft of that old barn is what he done,” Ruth said. “He’d still be there if nobody’d heard his heifer bawling at the hay bin.”
“It wasn’t near as bad as she makes it sound. Boy, you ever scrape your knee this pretty?” Dallas pirouetted on his good leg and showed his wounds to Dean, who had returned, swinging the cellophane fruit basket, about to send the Granny Smiths into orbit.
“Gross.” Dean wrinkled his face in disgusted admiration.
“Dean, be careful.” Eva rescued the swinging fruit basket from his grip.
“What’s this I hear about you making monkeyshines, arguing evolution in Sunday school with Lucy Gudger?” Dallas thumped his fat, soft Bible on Dean’s hard head.
“What did you say?” Royce dreaded his wayward son had let off another f-bomb in the church like he had at the house.
“Nothing.” Dean rubbed his head. “She was saying God created the Earth about four thousand years ago, if you counted all the begats in the Bible. I told her my biology teacher said the Earth was more like four billion years old.”
“Old! What you know about old, boy? Talk to me about old.” Dallas pinched the boy’s shoulder playfully. “Can’t see, can’t hear, can’t hardly walk. We’re getting so old we ain’t hardly fit to kill. Ain’t that right, Ruth?”
“Don’t talk like that,” Royce said. “You’re not dead yet.”
“Oh, I don’t plan on dying,” Dallas wasn’t joking now. “World’s going to go before me. Any day now, that trumpet’s going to sound. The heavens shall pass away with a great noise, the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the Earth also, and the works that are in it, shall be burned up.”
“Burned up?” Dean asked. The usual curiosity of teenage boys for death and destruction, Royce thought.
“Doomsday. That’s another Baptist thing like the Creation,” he explained. He always felt nervous when Dallas started quoting scripture.
“No, that comes after the Rapture,” Dallas corrected him. “Born-again believers won’t have to see the Tribulation that follows. The trumpet will sound, and you’ll be looking into that graveyard yonder and all them holes will open.”
“Cool,” said Dean.
“You’ll see them rising into heaven, even your granddaddy, I’ll bet.”
Royce squinted at the cemetery on the hill behind the church. He had been raised to believe that all the good Baptists buried there would walk out alive in the end, but the thought of his father shooting out of his grave like a stalk of bone unnerved him.
“You don’t believe that, do you?” Dallas pinched the funny bone in Royce’s elbow. “You think you’re too smart for all that now. Let me tell you, the Secretary of the Interior wanted to sell off the federal forest because the Lord was due any day.”
Royce worked free of his uncle’s clutches. “Say what you will on a Sunday, Dallas. Come Monday morning, you wouldn’t sell your land to Satan or St. Peter.”
“Don’t be so sure. Half million is what one jasper was offering me just last Monday.”
“Who in their right mind offered that?”
“This Japanese feller,” Dallas said. “Fight a war against them 50 years ago, now they’re over here buying up the land.”
“You’re not seriously thinking—”
Dallas doffed his green fedora from his broad shining pate, then clapped it down like a tight lid. “Boy, I’m always thinking.”
“Dallas, why don’t you come eat with us?” said Eva. “We bought fried chicken.”
“Store-bought?” Dallas looked disappointed. “That Colonel cooks the scrawniest chicken. No, I’m headed to the house, wait and see if the end comes today.”
His uncle waved goodbye as Royce backed his car out of the lot. In the mirror, he saw Dallas gaze at the sky, then check his wristwatch.
Dale Neal is the author of two novels, Cow Across America and The Half-Life of Home, which will be published by Casperian Books in April. He lives and works as a journalist in Asheville, North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe’s old hometown.